Sadly taking a break

IMG_3304

Hi all, it’s with very heavy heart that I temporarily put Home Plate Don’t Move on indefinite hiatus. In many ways I feel very disheartened doing this, but the last six months have been very, very difficult on a personal level. I’ve had some family challenges and bad news about friends.

Also, a couple weeks ago I learned that my landlord sold the house in which I live, and the new owner is being a schmeckel and booting everyone out. We were given a deadline of Nov. 18, so I’ve been scrambling to line up new accommodations.

But perhaps the most pertinent factor is the most painful. Over the past five years, I’ve written upwards of 100 articles about baseball history and the Negro Leagues, and produced more than 350 blog posts over the last two-plus or so years.

As a result, I’ve become majorly burned and and exhausted, a fact that became brutally evident at the Malloy conference in July, when I had a very difficult time health-wise. I simply collapsed, and I still feel horrible about it.

As a result of all these factors, I need a major break from scouring databases, going through archives, and tracking down people to interview. I need to put my health first right now. I feel very badly and guilty, but I also know I need to do it.

For the time being, I’ve decided to shift my focus, at least for a while, to covering current (and maybe a dab of historical) minor league news. I’m also going to attempt to get a small part-time for a little extra scratch, as well as — hopefully — working on a longer project about, well, me, my health challenges and my ancestry. Finally, I plan to apply for fall 2017 enrollment in the University of New Orleans Creative Writing MFA program. If I’m accepted, it doesn’t mean I’ll enroll, but I’m intrigued by the option.

12189753_1211629978853754_3661281647056187821_n

I also have some personal goals in addition to getting healthy, especially — finally! — getting married to my betrothed Lori and becoming a step dad. I also want to look into volunteering for a thing or two (a local animal shelter needs Cat Cuddlers). I’m hoping that giving back somehow will help me feel better about myself, something that, after 20-plus years, I want to at last accomplish.

So there it is. I want to deeply thank everyone who has followed and/or read my blog over the last three years — I am extremely grateful for and humbled by it. Thanks also to every single person who aided me along the way, whether it was providing tips, passing along documents or photos, being patient and gracious enough to be interviewed.

I will hopefully be back — the Negro Leagues and baseball history will always, always be my passion — and I’ll try to keep with the current blackball news, blogs and Facebook pages.

Again, many apologies for doing this, but sincere thanks to everyone who helped and/or read along the way! Good luck, Godspeed and keep the faith! Just remember what the great Buck Leonard said:

“We in the Negro leagues felt like we were contributing something to baseball, too, when we were playing. We played with a round ball, and we played with a round bat. And we wore baseball uniforms, and we thought that we were making a contribution to baseball. We loved the game, and we liked to play it.”

fEFVshYX9D31MIWqePEtKNS_NMwJU4c2AErUNOfZ1fP4IuLUeyB828alemFPttQRpsm8v8uS=w1223-h455

Leon Day’s 100th … In your words

12743521_1277958452233813_3747200540201289117_n

Logo courtesy of award-winning graphic artist and baseball historian Gary Cieradkowski

Editor’s note: On Oct. 30, Hall of Fame pitcher Leon Day would have been 100 years old, and I wanted to commemorate the landmark day in this blog somehow. I thought about what I could write or say, but then I decided to let you, my readers and the Negro Leagues community, to say it with your words, thoughts, feelings and memories.

Helping me was Michelle Freeman, who’s done a yeoman’s job with the Leon Day Foundation in Baltimore, which has striven to honor Day’s memory and promote his achievements and impact on the national pastime, including a series of upcoming events to mark Day’s centennial birthday.

So many thanks to Michelle and to everyone who contributed comments for this blog post. Without further ado, let’s get to honoring Leon! …

Mariposa de Canarsie:

Well, I heard of Leon Day as a fan of the Newark Bears, who had is name on the stadium’s Wall of Honor, but really did not know about his career with the team until meeting you, Michelle. So what he means to me is that through his legacy, we forged a friendship. And through the Jerry Malloy conference I became friends with Ryan, Rod, Leslie, Susan, Ted, Belinda, Larry and Jay. I have developed a deep appreciation for this league, especially the teams that played in New Jersey and New York.

Richard Berg:

Tod Bolton and I used to go to Leon’s house every year when the [Hall of Fame] Veterans Committee would meet. Monte Irvin, who was on the committee, was the driving force for Leon’s enshrinement. He would tell me he would call after the meeting to let us know of the committee’s decision. In 1994, [Day] didn’t make it, as we know, and I said to Leon, “You know they are just waiting for you to die,” and Leon said, “I’m going to stay alive just to piss them off.”

I loved Leon as he was a man with a great, dry sense of humor with the scratchiest voice. Another memory was when Leon was appearing at a card show with Joe DiMaggio and they took a picture together. Joe was asked in front of Leon if he ever faced Leon, and he said no, and Leon said he’s lucky he didn’t. I miss the man.

Ted Knorr:

If I knew then what I know now …

In the early ’90s, I attended a gathering of former Negro League greats at the Pratt Library in Baltimore. Among those scheduled to appear was the great righthander Leon Day. Realizing that my friend, Steelton’s Paul Dixon, and Leon had been teammates on several teams in the ’30s, I made a mental note to discuss Paul with Leon.

Upon meeting, Leon could not have been more warm, friendly and open. In my scarce few minutes with the great pitcher, we discussed Paul, and he shared some adventures that they had had, and he gave me his phone number to pass along to my friend Paul.

Sadly, we did not discuss Rap Dixon, Paul’s older brother, much at all, although Leon did tell me that he never saw Rap play in his prime, and he added, almost as an afterthought, that Rap Dixon had been his first manager. Leon signed a baseball that already included Hall of Famers Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin, and a dozen others. We parted and went about participating in the wonderful event.

A few years later, my autographed baseball added a third Hall of Famer when on March 8, 1995, Leon Day received the call from the Hall informing and congratulating him upon his election. Sadly, Leon passed just a few days later and never made it to Cooperstown for his induction later that summer.

Years later, I received an answer to my unspoken question. In the intervening years and up to the present day, I remain convinced that Rap Dixon, my friend Paul’s brother, belongs alongside Leon Day in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I had always wondered what Leon really thought of Rap Dixon as a player. In 2001, William F. McNeil published a book entitled “Cool Papas & Double Duties: The All-Time Greats of the Negro Leagues,” in which he surveyed many former Negro League players about who they would select as an all-time starting nine. To my extreme pleasure, I found Leon Day was one of the players surveyed. I immediately went to Leon’s page and found he named the following players to his all-time lineup … the ninth player, in position No. 9, the right fielder, was, to my utter joy, Rap Dixon. In his all-time nine, [Leon] had named eight Hall of Famers (only five of which were so honored at the time) and Rap Dixon.

14671284_349221382078119_8199156868936870142_n

Photo courtesy James Tate

James Tate:

I met Mr. Day at the 1990 players’ reunion in Baltimore. He was a delightful man to speak with. I asked him about the ball players he enjoyed watching when he was kid, and it was through him that I first learned of players like Jud Wilson, Oliver Marcell, Rap Dixon, Pete Hill and Laymon Yokely and the Baltimore Black Sox. I knew I had to learn more about these players and this great team that he spoke so highly of! He signed a hat and some cards for me. After he made the Hall, his wife Geraldine added “HOF 95” to the hat for me at another Negro League event. I cherish it and still have it and wear it on a few occasions.

Guy Mitchell:

When you think of Leon Day, you think of the word COMPLETE. In today’s game, you have great pitchers, but perhaps they aren’t great fielders. You hear of pitchers who field their position well. Some today can even hit. With Leon Day, you think of being great everywhere! He could pitch (boy, could he pitch), he could hit, he could run. He played the infield, and he played the outfield! Who could do that today?

Will Clark:

One word: Stud. He could do it all.

Leslie Heaphy:

I was inspired by his spirit to want to continue to tell the stories of these incredible people.

I think Leslie’s brief but powerful comment is a good way to summarize and conclude this post about one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. Again, many thanks to everyone who contributed something, and if anyone else wants to add their thoughts or comments, add them below, or email me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

And, of course, Happy Birthday, Leon!

Weldy Walker: Honored at last

14358878_850068588428045_7068819824966374873_n

The new headstone at the grave of Weldy Walker. (All photos courtesy the Moses Fleetwood Walker Day Facebook page

Editor’s note: Because I’m a little swamped now with attending to matters outside of my work, research and writing, I decided to solicit guest commentaries, posts and comments from outside contributors on subjects with a recent news peg or angle. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has volunteered and agreed so far, and if anyone else has something timely they like to pitch, definitely shoot me an email at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

This post marks the first installment of that effort. It’s a commentary from SABR member Craig Brown, who toiled with the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project to raise money for, create and place a headstone at the previously unmarked grave of Weldy Walker, the second openly African American to play in the Majors, following is brother, Moses Fleetwood Walker. The efforts of Craig and others came to fruition last month, when a beautiful new marker was installed at Weldy’s burial spot. Below is a commentary written by Craig to mark the occasion. Enjoy, and congrats to Craig and his helpers on their success!

Welday Walker: The 2nd African American in MLB

By Craig Brown

The harsh reality is that no one remembers who came in second place. Whether it is fair or not, that is the truth. Who is the Olympic athlete with the most silver medals? Who was the second man to lead a ship to the New World? Well, that was Christopher Columbus. We only know that because so many people believe he was first. The second African American to play Major League Baseball was Welday (Weldy) Walker, and nobody remembers him.

It is disappointing nobody talks about the people who came in second place. After all, they worked hard and accomplished great things in their own right. Maybe it is because people only have so much room in their head, and they just want to save space for only the most “Important” of things.

Welday Walker was “second” throughout his life. He was the second son of Moses W. Walker and Caroline O’Harra Walker. He was the second Walker boy to attend Oberlin College and play baseball. He followed his older brother, Moses Fleetwood Walker, to the University of Michigan. He later became the second African American to play Major League baseball on July 15, 1884 as a Toledo Blue Stocking. Of course, this is after his older brother debuted as the first African American to play Major League Baseball on May 1, 1884. Walker was used to doing things after his brother. We can only imagine the intensity of this sibling rivalry.

Still, there is a very good reason that Welday should be remembered in his own right. Being one of only two African Americans to openly play Major League Baseball as almost 80 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier is a pretty big deal. The very presence of the Walker Brothers in Major League Baseball actually created the color barrier. Both of these men were pioneers and deserve credit for showing the world that African Americans were capable and in every way equal to white Americans. They were testaments against the prevailing view of Social Darwinism.

Both Walker Brothers are historic figures. They are both important pages in the book of baseball history and were both civil rights pioneers. It is in the latter respect where Welday separates himself from his older and more recognized brother.

Shortly after the Civil War and in an environment rife with racial tension, Welday and a friend won an anti-discrimination lawsuit. In 1884, Welday and Hannibal Lyons were denied admission to a skating rink in Steubenville, Ohio, because they were black. They sued. They were portrayed in the media as troublemakers, but the judge issued a favorable ruling. Each plaintiff was awarded $15, but as indicative of the times, they were still not allowed to enter the rink.

12985597_763639040404334_1053297233769321671_n

By the end of 1884, the unofficial ban on blacks in baseball would keep the Walker Brothers and other talented African Americans out of Major League Baseball, but for a few years, the Walkers and others would play in “minor” leagues.” Of course, eventually racism would end their playing days on that level too.

In 1887, Welday was playing for the Akron Acorns. That year Welday learned that racial segregation was becoming the norm in minor leagues and he learned his days playing on an integrated baseball field were coming to an end.

This prompted Welday to commit his most memorable act. He penned a letter to the president of the Tri-State League objecting to this policy based on racial discrimination and ignorance. He argued, “There should be some broader case – such as want of ability, behavior, and intelligence — for barring a player than his color.” Two years earlier, while playing for the Cleveland Forest Cities, Welday batted .375. His ability was never the issue.

Ten years after Welday’s short time with the Acorns, a black man was lynched by the citizens of Urbana, Ohio. Welday was outraged by the lack of action by state government. He blamed Gov. Asa Bushnell for a shoddy investigation, and formally left the Republican Party. He then helped form the Negro Protective Party.

Both Moses Fleetwood Walker and Welday Walker were interred in unmarked graves in Steubenville’s Union Cemetery. In 1998 Oberlin College’s Heisman Club erected a tombstone at Moses’ grave. The act made headlines and once again revived the memory of Moses Fleetwood Walker as what he accomplished as the first openly African-American player in Major League Baseball.

A couple of months ago enough money was raised in connection with the Society for American Baseball Research to buy Welday Walker a headstone. We hope to plan a ceremony in the spring. It is our hope that people will begin to talk about the African-American man who was second to play Major League Baseball. We also hope that this act will lead to a broader discussion about Welday’s life as a vocal opponent against discrimination and as an early civil rights pioneer in his own right.

Plunging into the bureaucracy

Dear Mr. Dixon and Mir. Scott,

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

download

John Bissant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davenport_LLoyd

Ducky Davenport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_3924

A grave in the Bissant family plot

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

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

Which I did. Three weeks ago.

Then I followed up with another email a week later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questionable Trump ad

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

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

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

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

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

Where do the blues and baseball intersect?

crush

Crush Holloway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pmp058-fp

T-Bone Walker

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

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

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

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

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

sp1000944_0

Gerald Early

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tumblr_lt04ye75le1qe5q0qo1_1280

Bukka White

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

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

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

Big Luke’s Rochester legacy

14012791_10209775180353303_1687197363_o

Photo courtesy Joe Territo Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3980

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

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

Democrat_and_Chronicle_Wed__Dec_27__1972_

Dec. 27, 1972, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

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

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

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

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

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

42792_DC000383-05232

42792_DC000437-00970

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democrat_and_Chronicle_Fri__Mar_30__1979_

March 30, 1979, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

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

Towering Rochester sports journalist George Beahon:

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

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

Silver Stadium groundskeeper Dick Sierens:

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

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

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

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

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

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