Wright’s daughter remembers trailblazer on his birthday

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

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

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

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

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

Johnny Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buck Leonard

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

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

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

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

Chicago Defender, Feb. 9, 1946

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

Below is the short email interview:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amsterdam News, Nov. 24, 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pittsburgh Courier, Feb. 9, 1946

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The San Jacinto Club in New Orleans

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

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

Members’ Oath for the San Jacinto

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

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

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

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

But more on that a bit later.

Courtesy Amistad Research Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louisiana Weekly, Oct. 3, 1936

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undated ad, 1922

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago Defender, Sept. 16, 1916

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

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

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

Reported the April 9, 1938, Weekly:

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

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

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

**********

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

APPENDIX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the more particular requirements included:

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

Negro Leagues managers and the Hall of Fame

 

Gentleman Dave Malarcher

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

But there needs to be.

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

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

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

Author, colleague and friend Alex Painter added simply:

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

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

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

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

C.I. Taylor

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

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

Candy Jim Taylor

Candy Jim Taylor, by Steve Kuzmiak

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

Vic Harris

Vic Harris, by Will Clark

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

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

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

Winfield Welch

Winfield Welch, from a 2015 article at myneworleans.com

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

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

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

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

 

Dick Lundy

Dick Lundy, by Alex Painter

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

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

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

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

Gentleman Dave Malarcher, by Ryan Whirty

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

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

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

Lon Goodwin

Lon Goodwin, by Bill Staples Jr.

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

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

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

**********

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

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

Said Shestakofsky:

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

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

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

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

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

The Hall of Fame

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

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

Shestakofsky said:

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

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

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

Sol White

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

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

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

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

 

The Buck O’Neil statue

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

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

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

 

Bud Fowler

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

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

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

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

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

New Orleanians on the Canadian Prairies

The 1937 Broadview Buffaloes

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

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

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

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

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

The Louisiana Weekly article stated:

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

It added:

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

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

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

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

Wrote Burbridge:

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

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

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

Lionel Decuir with the Broadview Buffaloes

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

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

Dryburgh added:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He added:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A perfect summary for an amazing club.

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

New Orleans and the NNL’s centennial

Wesley Barrow Stadium in New Orleans.

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Charleston

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

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

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

Doswell added:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wesley Barrow

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

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

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

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

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

Members of the Old Timers Baseball Club

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

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

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

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

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

In his 1981 article, Stockard opined:

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

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

Friends and peers tip their caps!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Deon Johnson

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

Mitch Lutzke

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

Ted Knorr

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

Dan D’Addona

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

Terence Scantlebury

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

Leslie Heaphy

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

Jim Overmyer

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

Rod Nelson

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

Will Clark

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

Alex Painter

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

Mark D. Aubrey

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

Kevin Kryeski

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

Karl Lindholm

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

Also, Bob Poet put his neat spin on it:

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

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

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

Book examines double HOFer Cum Posey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.