Cannonball’s military service

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Here’s another reason the suspicious death of Cannonball Dick Redding in a Long Island mental hospital/house of horrors in 1948 is so heart achingly tragic: He served in World War I as a Buffalo Soldier in one of the highly decorated all-black units that first gained fame as calvary men during the Western campaigns of the late 19th century.

Above is a photo of such a unit in The Great War, with soldiers hunkered down in the infamous trenches that marked the horrible conflict. Below is a posed photo of a WWI Buffalo Soldier unit.

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Dick Redding enlisted as a private in the Army in May 1918 at the age of 25. He was assigned to the 367th infantry of the the 92nd division, a group that was mustered in November 1917 and, like pretty much all African-American military units of the time, was led by white officers, although each unit had enlisted men who were promoted to sergeant, etc. The regiment’s motto was “See It Through.”

The 367th was, quite simply, one of the most decorated and honored unit of Buffalo Soldiers in The War to End All Wars. Wrote one historian several decades ago: “Quite naturally, and with pardonable pride, all the officers and men of each unit of the 92nd Division regard their particular unit as having contributed most to the glory of that Division and to the record of the achievements of Negro troops upon battlefields overseas. However, it will probably not be disputed that the 367th U. S. Infantry was, in some respects, the most notable unit of the 92nd Division.”

The regiment didn’t see action until the very tail end of the war, in the Meuse-Argonne campaign, one of the key efforts that essentially clinched victory for the Allies. The entire 1st battalion of the 367th — including, possibly, Dick Redding — was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French military for its valiant protection of another unit that was besieged during the drive toward Metz on Nov. 10-11.

In addition, the group distinguished itself 10 days earlier. Of that service, one of the 367th’s white commanding officers, Maj. Charles Appleton, issued a glowing citation for bravery that stated: “Under intense shell fire of gas and H. S. lasting two hours, the company maintained its advanced positions, staying there without any shelter and finally repelling the enemy raid and capturing one prisoner.”

Armistice occurred on Nov. 11, signaling the end of hostilities and, therefore, the termination of the war, at least on the Western front. The 367th returned to the States and was disbanded in 1919.

But, in the context of this blog, it’s absolutely necessary to mention that the 92nd also had one heck of a ball club, a fact detailed in the May 23, 1918, edition of the Brooklyn Eagle. “The team is a wonder, and many hot contests are in prospect, the paper stated. “From the Buffalo point of view, the best the professional [baseball] field holds today could just manage to work up an interesting contest, and there is a lot of money in camp that would back the negro soldiers if such a game were arranged.”

The squad was stocked with, well, ringers from the best African-American baseball teams in the country, including left-handed fireballer Dick Redding.

Once the regiment and division were dissolved in 1919, Redding received his discharge in March of that year and immediately returned to professional baseball with the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City.

After his mysterious death at Pilgrim State Hospital on Halloween 1948, Redding was buried in Long Island National Cemetery with military honors. His widowed wife Edna was buried next to him after she passed three years later. You can find information about Redding’s gravesite here.

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Huge impact despite tall tales

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On Friday, Dallas native William “Bill” Blair (above, photo courtesy CBS Dallas-Fort Worth), who had died earlier in the week, was buried in Dallas, leaving behind a massive legacy of civil-rights advocacy and activism, as well as a huge imprint on African-American journalism not only in Texas, but across the country.

Blair’s accomplishments over his 92 years of life included:

• Attending Prairie View A&M

• Becoming the first African-American first sergeant during World War II

• Founding an expanding several influential newspapers in Texas, beginning with the Highlight News and running through The Elite News. His papers offered blanket coverage of African-American sports in Texas and the surrounding states, particularly college sports.

• Making memorabilia and other donations to UT-Arlington.

• Launched a local Religious Hall of Fame.

• Having a Dallas Park named after him.

• Tirelessly advancing civil rights programs and efforts in a state that has always been known for rocky race relations.

Part of his stated legacy also includes a rich career in Negro Leagues baseball, with online biographies claiming that he played several years with the Indianapolis Clowns, the Cincinnati Clowns, the Cincinnati Crescents and the Detroit Stars.

However, the actual historical record doesn’t exactly reflect an illustrious blackball career. In a quick database survey of newspaper coverage, I found that Blair, while certainly playing for numerous Texas based semipro teams, saw very little action on teams in other parts of the country and the higher levels of African-American baseball.

For example, I found no sources that list him competing for the Detroit Stars, although a couple articles list him as playing for the Detroit Senators for a year or two. He was also on the roster of the Crescents, but only for a year or two, and even then, it appears he didn’t seen the field too many times. In addition, he did play for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1948, but his name rarely shows up in box scores.

But that’s about it, as far as I could find. Again, I took just a cursory look of the major African-American newspapers of the day, so maybe other publications bear out that he did, in fact, have a decent career in the Negro Leagues.

But still, Blair’s baseball resumé appears to not measure up to the one that has been inflated by tall tales and self-promotion over the decades. That’s not unusual though — countless athletes of every sport and every ethnicity have been known to embellish their accomplishments when talking with everyone from grandchildren to interview journalists.

And it appears that the Dallas community seized on those tall takes and made Bill Blair into a more important ballplayer than he actually was.

But it’s at this point that I would argue that such a situation isn’t a bad thing — it’s actually a good, even historically important one. Blair’s reputation, however artificially enhanced, as a good baseball player and a hardy member of segregated black teams, allowed him to become an incredibly influential journalist, publisher, civil-rights advocate, humanitarian and philanthropist.

So what if his baseball career was seized upon by the Dallas community and made into something bigger than it actually was. That inflation of his hardball career led to other accomplishments that eventually had a much greater, and much more noble, historical legacy.

Bill Blair might not have been a great ballplayer, but he was an incredible human being, and that, in the end, is what truly matters.

 

Wesley Barrow’s NOLA legacy

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This is New Hope Baptist Cemetery in Gretna, La. It’s less than a mile from my house. Buried there is Wesley Barrow, a legendary figure on the New Orleans Negro Leagues scene. He managed numerous pro, semipro and sandlot teams here for decades until his during Christmas 1965. When it comes to local NOLA blackball, there’s promotor Allen Page, player/historian/humanitarian Wilbur Wright, and Wesley Barrow.

Those are the Big Three, in my mind, of Big Easy African-American baseball. True, several excellent players and managers who went on to stardom in the top levels of the national Negro Leagues — Oliver Marcell, Dave Malarcher, John Wright, etc. — but Page, Wilbur Wright (no relation to John) and Barrow were the lifeblood of black baseball here. They were the driving forces over the decades.

Earlier this week I remedied an embarrassing failure on my part — even though I live less than a mile, in the two-plus years I’ve lived here, I never walked up the street to find Mr. Barrow’s grave and pay my respects.

So on Wednesday I visited the New Hope Baptist Cemetery and looked for the skipper’s grave. And looked. And looked.

I spent an hour combing the small burial ground from corner to corner, end to end. I climbed over fallen and cracked headstones, rudimentary piles of dirt that served as graves, bushels of weeds, countless gopher and ant holes. I even found an old pair of rain boots.

But I couldn’t find Wesley Barrow’s grave.

I could, though, have walked right by it. Many stones had engravings that were so weather-worn that the names and dates were illegible, and other monuments appeared to be unmarked. There were also numerous empty spaces of grass that had long, sunken pits in them. It was very, very disheartening.

Maybe I missed it. That could be. So I tried calling the New Hope Baptist Church of Gretna, which is only a few blocks from the cemetery. I called at least three times, and all I got each time was a barely audible answering machine message.

Wesley Barrow has been honored and recognized by the NOLA community, primarily by naming the beautifully restored baseball field in Pontchartrain Park — an historic African-American planned community that was destroyed during Katrina — after him. The stadium hosts youth leagues and a variety of other events, and it’s current the home of Major League Baseball’s newest Urban Youth Academy. Here’s a picture of it, from the NOLA Black Professionals group’s Web site, nolablackprofessionals.com (check out the site if you can, it’s pretty cool):

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So it isn’t like Wesley Barrow’s immense legacy is being ignored here. It’s not. He is being recognized.

But the lack of a decent burial site, to me, is still very heart-sinking for a legend like Wesley Barrow. I’d like to take some steps to rectify that, so if anyone knows anything at all that could be helpful, feel free to email me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

The Cannonball Mystery, Continued

This post is a continuation of one I made about Cannon Dick Redding a week and a half ago. I apologize it’s taken me so long to update it …

Here’s a PDF of a page from the Nov. 6, 1948, issue of the New York Amsterdam News, an African-American paper. It includes a short article about the funeral services for former Negro Leagues pitching star Richard “Dick” Redding, who garnered the mound nickname “Cannonball” for his overpowering delivery and wicked fastball:

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Note that the World War I veteran — he fought on the French front in the waning days of The Great War — received military rites after passing away “in Brentwood Hospital after a year’s illness.”

First off, it’s quite disheartening to know that such a fantastic pitcher — one whom many believe belongs in the Hall of Fame — and, moreover, a fantastic human being garnered such little coverage in the media after his death.

But secondly, this is Brentwood Hospital, better known as Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island:

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And this …

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And this:

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Or at least it was around the time Dick Redding was institutionalized. It was the world’s largest psychiatric hospital, with around 14,000 patients at its peak. Decades ago, such places were often dubbed “lunatic asylums.”

This is what the vast majority of Pilgrim State Hospital looks like today:

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No wonder some people believe the place to be haunted. Here’s an excerpt from a 2009 article by Ambrose Clancy on libn.com, commenting on how the development of revolutionary medications affected the kind of “treatment” that went on at Pilgrim:

 “The new drugs freed the mentally ill to control their conditions at home through pills, rather than being warehoused in huge state institutions where in many cases quacks dispensed “therapies” which turned human beings into vegetables or caged them like animals.

“The primitive methods of treatment included restraint devices unchanged since the dark ages, as well electric shock and prefrontal lobotomies. This procedure required drilling holes in a patient’s skull and then severing fibers that connect the thalamus to the frontal lobes of the brain.

“Physicians could take a knife to anyone’s brain if the patient was institutionalized and demonstrated aggressive behavior. Patients were either reduced to drooling idiots or children with almost no memory.

“More than 2,000 Pilgrim patients were lobotomized in the 1940s and ‘50s. One out of every 25 lobotomies performed in the country was done there.”

Today, what was a massive, 1,000-acre-plus (!!!) facility has been winnowed down to little more than a handful of mainly administrative buildings. Included in those buildings is a medical records office, to which I’ve sent a letter formally requesting the release of Richard Redding’s files. I’m guessing I’ll be denied, with administrators most likely citing privacy issues.

In addition, New York State seems to have very stringent rules for who can receive copies of a death certificate. I’m probably going to try to get Cannonball’s anyway, but I doubt my reasons will be deemed pertinent enough by some random bureaucrat.

So how did Dick Redding, baseball twirler extraordinaire, perish, forgotten, in a New York mental institution that was known for medieval treatment practices (and the occasional patient death at the hands of staffers)? Was he a “lunatic”?

At the time, no one seemed to really know for sure. In an August 1948 article, just a couple months before Redding’s death, Hall of Fame sportswriter and Baltimore Afro-American columnist Sam Lacy wrote that Redding “is reportedly critically ill in a New York hospital.”

Then this from the Associated Negro Press’ Alvin Moses at the same time:

“Dick (Cannonball) Redding, Lincoln Giants pitcher whom Babe Ruth was unable to hit successfully in barnstorming tilts with colored teams, is seriously ill and hospitalized at this writing, his body racked with a strange malady.”

Over the years, the mystery never dissipated. Legendary Negro Leagues chronicler John Holway, in a short biography of Redding, quoted another blackball legend, Ted Page, regarding Redding’s virtual disappearance into a medical black hole.

“Dick Redding remained in baseball spreading good humor until 1938,” Holway penned. “He died shortly after that. The circumstances aren’t clear. ‘I know he died in a mental hospital,’ says Page, ‘down in Long island … Nobody’s ever told me really why, how, what happened to him.”

Then Holway added: “The mystery may never be solved, but the memory of the big, grinning good natured black pitcher remains.”

If anyone out there reading this knows anything at all about the final years and death Cannonball Dick Redding — especially any family members or descendants — please feel free to e-mail me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com. I WILL solve this mystery with your help.

 

The Louisiana Jackie, Part 2

I apologize I’m getting to this so late in the day — very hectic Wednesday …

Anyway, to conclude the Sam Fowlkes story, in continued honoring of Jackie Robinson Day … Around 1950-ish, this Lake Charles native made it to the pitching mounds of the famed Kansas City Monarchs and the Negro American League. That in and of itself — to follow in the footsteps of such legendary hurlers as Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith — is quite an accomplishment for an ol’ Pelican State guy.

But in July 1952, Fowlkes made his biggest mark on baseball history. That’s when he was signed by the Lake Charles Lakers of the Class B Gulf Coast League of organized baseball. Granted, that’s a relatively low-level minor-league circuit that really only included teams from the deep South, but the Lakers’ brave inking of their native son was very bold. To quote the Chicago Defender, with the move, Fowlkes became “the first [black player] ever signed by a white team in Louisiana.”

Also granted, that’s a landmark for just one state, but it has to be considered in context — this is one of the states of the “deep South,” where racism allegedly was the strongest and most intractable. There’s also an historical context — earlier that summer, a bill had been submitted to the Louisiana State Legislature that, according to the Defender, “would have banned Negro players from competing with whites in all sports in the state.”

The bill, however, was defeated, albeit by a sliver — 13-12.

In the wake of that political development, there apparently wasn’t a big deal made in the region by Fowlkes’ presence on the Lake Charles squad. Again, per the July 19, 1952, Defender story:

“Folkes [sic] has not yet made an appearance with the Lake Charles team, but nothing is expected to happen when he does made [sic] his first mound appearance.

“Truman Stancey, sports editor of The American” — to clarify, it was Truman Stacey of the Lake Charles American Press — “said he had talked with most of the players on the Lake Charles team ‘and their comments was that if he can pitch, he’s the man.'”

The Lakers also eventually signed another African American, utility infielder Ernest Chretian, soon after bringing Fowlkes aboard.

By the time 1953 rolled around, both the “mainstream” media and the black press were publishing articles about how, to quote a Washington Post headline over an Associated Press, “Negro Players Now No Novelty In Southern Baseball Leagues.” That AP article surveyed various minor leagues in the South and found that “at least 11 professional leagues across Dixie plan to use Negroes in 1953, or at least give them tryouts.”

The African-American Pittsburgh Courier, meanwhile, blared, “Seeking Tan Talent: Diamond Trend on Upgrade in South.” 

There were, of course, a handful of exceptions, the most prominent being the Class AA Southern Association, which, amazingly, never did integrate at all before it died in 1961 — a death that can largely be attributed to such staunch segregation.

That proved that, while the trailblazing efforts of Fowlkes, Chretian and others were certainly vital, they also didn’t exactly change America in one moment. In fact, things didn’t go well for the two Lake Charles men after that; while the aforementioned Pittsburgh Courier article states that the Lakers “used Pitcher Sam Fowlkes last year and probably will have him back this season,” in June 1953, the Lakers released both Fowlkes and Chretian. The reason is a little unclear.

It’s an upsetting coda to this story, but again, the Big Picture must be considered — regardless of how long the Lake Charles pair stuck with the Lakers, what they achieved was still very significant for the state of Louisiana, the South and America as a whole, and both players, especially Fowlkes, deserve to be recognized for what they accomplished.

The Louisiana Jackie, Part 1

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I know this is probably overkill for Jackie Robinson Day, given that I’ve already made two other posts today, but I did want to tell a little about this trailblazer in honor of Jackie’s memory … I’ll do it in two parts, one today, one tomorrow.

When I say “The Louisiana Jackie,” I don’t mean NOLA’s John Wright (a pitcher who was signed by the Dodgers with Jackie but never made it to the majors), but Lake Charles native Sam Fowlkes (pic above), who, when inked by the Lake Charles Lakers of the Gulf Coast League minor circuit in 1952, apparently became the first African American to sign with a Louisiana-based professional team in organized (i.e. “white”) baseball.

Sam Fowlkes as born … well, I’m not sure exactly when he was born, ‘cus different official documents give three different dates: Sept. 5, 1926; Feb. 24, 1926; and Dec. 7, 1927.

Regardless of when it was, he was Lake Charles born and bred. His family’s roots, however, trace back to Nottoway County, Virginia, where they were slaves and then sharecroppers into the late 1800s. At some point before the turn of the century, Sam’s grandfather (and likely namesake) migrated to Louisiana and eventually settled in Calcasieu Parish. Here’s the U.S. Census slave schedule from 1850 that lists the branch of the white Fowlkes family that likely owned the black Fowlkeses:

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The younger Sam’s parents, Richard and Rosa Fowlkes, already had seven kids by the time Sam was born, and Richard and Rosa weren’t done, either. So Sam grew up in a pretty big family. When Sam came along, Richard was working as a janitor at the local post office.

Young Sam took up baseball, and he was pretty good at it, too — by 1948, he was pitching for the legendary Chicago American Giants of the Negro American League. He shifted to the equally-as-legendary Kansas City Monarchs for the 1950 campaign. Joining him on the roster was fellow Lake Charles native Ernest Chretian, and the famed John “Buck” O’Neil was the squad’s skipper. Here’s how one African-American newspaper described Fowlkes in April 1950:

“… a stalwart right hander from Lake Charles, La., will be next in line for starting assignments. Fowlkes, 5’1″, weighing 185, boasts blinding speed and a sharp breaking curve ball, is 21 years old.” (There’s no way Fowlkes was 21, but it was common for players of the day to shave a year or two off their ages to make themselves more appealing to teams.)

Some of the black apparently believed it would be youngsters like Fowlkes who would give a boost to the NAL, which was already foundering, just three years after the major leagues integrated.

Speaking of integration, it was in 1952, though, that Sam Fowlkes made his biggest impact on the American pastime, especially in the deep South. To be continued tomorrow …

No longer forgotten

Yep, I had a couple articles published today. Here’s a Web exclusive for Hour Detroit magazine about William H. Binga, about whom a wrote a couple weeks ago and about whom I’m giving a presentation at the Society for American Baseball Research’s annual Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues conference, which is in the Motor City this year:

http://www.hourdetroit.com/Hour-Detroit/April-2014/Hes-No-Longer-Forgotten/

Binga is another beneficiary of the efforts of the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project.