The Speed league

In doing research for another story, I tripped over something called the Berkeley International League, a circuit in the late 1930s based in, yep, Berkeley, Calif., and encompassing much of the Bay Area.

Like the California Winter League, the BIL was integrated, albeit amateur, unlike the CWL. But what was truly unique about the BIL was the fact that it wasn’t just white (with one or more possibly Jewish) and African-American (like the Athens Elks and Berkeley Grays) teams. It also had Latino (like the Aztec Stars), Chinese (such as the Wa Sung Athletic Club, which an organization that still exists, quite thrivingly) and, reportedly, Japanese teams (although I found no immediate evidence of any Japanese squads, which isn’t to say there wasn’t any).

The BIL and, especially, its Asian teams, have been completely unexplored up until this point, with experts only vaguely recognizing the league and its member squads. But apparently some of the loop’s squads competed in the California semipro state tournament and even the prestigious national Denver Post tourney.

For example, Rob Fitts, one of the preeminent scholars of Asian-American baseball, says this via email: “I don’t know much about the SF area teams other than the first Japanese team dates to about 1902 and I believe was called the Fuji Club. I’m pretty sure that they never barnstormed outside of the area.”

That in and of itself is certainly fascinating enough. But once I did a little more reading about the BIL, I learned a great deal about the guy behind it — Byron “Speed” Reilly.

In reference to the BIL, the Oakland Tribune called Reilly the “president of the circuit.” A February 1936 article in the paper paints a colorful picture of a guy who was part executive, part team owner (the Grays and the Elks), part PR hustler and part journalist:

“Byron ‘Speed’ Reilly, who organized the league and has held the president’s chair since it started in 1928, believes this year will be the best.

“‘After a careful check, I found that we averaged larger crowds at our diamond in Berkeley, than any park in Oakland,’ said Reilly. ‘And if the application of the Mexican Aztec Stars is received, the circuit will truly be international and I believe we will again outdraw any other league during our summer season.’”

And Reilly wasn’t just about the BIL. He also served as a correspondent/reporter for African-American newspapers across the country, and he also worked as a promotor and booking agent for major musical and variety acts that came through the Bay Area.

In many cases, Reilly’s “articles” for newspapers were little more than gussied-up press releases for his teams, leagues or entertainment shows. (Such a situation was certainly not an anomaly in the world of blackball. Back East, Cum Posey and other representatives of various teams Negro Leagues teams acted as “reporters” for newspapers, which today would be seen as a massive conflict of interest.)

But, for as ubiquitous as Reilly was in California, he proves a difficult figure on which to get a handle. It’s unclear, for example, exactly where he was based — the Bay Area or LA — and it’s even difficult to pin down whether he was black or white!

Reilly appears to have originally been from the Sacramento area, the son of Philip and Laura Reilly — or, in some documents, O’Reilly or O’Reily. Reillyy seems to have then moved to Oakland in the Bay Area by the time the 1930 Census was taken. In that document, Byron is listed as being “Byron O’Reily,” black, a newspaper reporter and born in roughly 1905.

In the 1940 Census, Reilly is listed as “Byron O’Reilly,” 39 years old, still living in Oakland, a promotor of a “radio program” and … white! Here’s that Census record:

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What?!?!

His wife, the former Vivian Sanderson, was a native of Oakland and born in about 1909. They were married on May 3, 1930 in Oakland. In the official marriage register, Byron’s last name is “O’Reilly.”

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Before that, in the 1910 and 1920 Censuses, Vivian is listed as white. Here’s that:

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But then, in the 1940 Census, Vivian is listed as … black!

Double what?!?!

In the report, the couple has two sons and a daughter, and they’re still living in Oakland in an otherwise largely white neighborhood.

To say the least, Byron “Speed” Reilly’s life and career were fascinating as well as perplexing. Why, for example, would he drop the O’ from his last name? And how do we explain the shifting racial identities of both him and his wife?

The answers to those questions could be many and varied, with some very possibly concerning the issue of “passing” for one race or another in order to fit in and adapt to whatever professional or socioeconomic circles in which they found themselves at any given moment. Perhaps both Byron and Vivian were extremely light-skinned mixed-race people who could, in fact, easily slip between ethnic identities.

And maybe because of that ambiguity, Byron O’Reilly became Byron Reilly because O’Reilly sounds more white (probably Gaelic), which he could have viewed as detrimental to his status in the African-American athletic, entertainment and social circles in which he traveled.

The exact answers to those questions might only be discovered if descendants/relatives of Byron and/or Vivian are discovered, located and interviewed.

Until then, one can only speculate and ponder on such shifting solutions. In any event, Byron “Speed” Reilly was certainly a colorful character and a perhaps more than just a fascinating footnote in the history if minority baseball.

Does Sol White have living relatives?

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I wish I could have gotten this up earlier, but it’s been a rough week. I also wish I could explore this in greater detail in this post, but hopefully I can over the weekend …

Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, did a bunch of digging into the background of Sol White, a Hall of Famer who just received a gravestone via the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project. (For an article I did on the story, go here, and for a Larry Lester Web page on the event, check this out.)

Mr. Thorn could very well have found that White — who hitherto, as far as anyone knew, had no living descendants or relatives or, therefore, anyone to represent his family at the above-mentioned ceremony — might actually have some!:

http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2014/05/26/sol-whites-family-lost-and-found/

As I said, I’ll try to process this over the next few days and get my thoughts on it up soon.

That sentence sounds very egotistical, I think. Comparing myself to John Thorn was not my intent. I just have a lot of ideas about this bouncing around in my noggin.

And did I use the word hitherto correctly?

Another sort of trailblazer

Once in a while I veer off from my normal path and explore other aspects of hardball history — or what Gary Ashwill calls “adventures in baseball archaeology” — that involve other ethnicities. It also helps — and see my previous post relating to this — that we have a “XXXXXXX Heritage and History Month” for just about every segment of society, which means I always have an opportunity to sell stories about other ethnicities.

Such is the case in May, which is Jewish American Heritage Month, and, as it happens, for a while I’ve been fascinated to the point of meshuggennah about the story of Lip Pike, the first known professional base ball (two words) player and, certainly, the first Jewish professional player and the first Jewish base ball superstar. So today I just had an article about him published in CityBeat, the alt-weekly in Cincinnati.

Here’s a sketch of Mr. Pike:

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This post is dedicated to my dear friend and journalistic colleague David Hammer, who has taught me so much about Jewish culture and history and even, at one point, actively encouraged my desire to be a mohel. David has been always been there for me, for 17 years now, through thick and thin, and I’m very, very proud of him. Even though he recently went to the dark side — gasp! — TV journalism. But he’s a damn good investigative reporter, the best I have ever personally known. He’s also just the best person I’ve ever known, period. Thanks, man.

Off to Seattle — and an internal journey

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It’s official! I’m going to Seattle in late July for the Mariners’ African-American Heritage Day so I can cover Herb Simpson (the dashing fellow above) being honored by the team for his status as the last living member of the 1946 Seattle Steelheads.

The RBI Club, the Mariners’ booster group, is finding me accommodations while I’m there, which will be July 24-28, and the club is providing a $200 travel stipend toward a shockingly cheap $350 round trip — and non-stop, I might add — flight from NOLA to the Jet City on, surprisingly enough, Alaska Airlines. It’s hard convincing many New Orleanians that Alaska is, in fact, a real place and not a product of fairy tales about this “snow” business.

I’m thrilled and beyond honored by this development, to be honest. Out of all the New Orleans media the Seattle club could have to whom the Mariners club could have extended this offer, it chose me, which is both flattering and humbling, and I plan to make the best of the opportunity.

I’m also extremely excited for Herb as well. When he makes the trip in a couple months, he’ll be just shy of his 94th birthday, so this will most likely be his last trip to Seattle for this annual fete. The rigors of travel are just too rough to go through on a yearly basis, despite the fact that he’s being accompanied by his nephew for help. Heck, flying is a stressful pain in the butt for my 41-year-old fanny, and probably for people of all ages.

While this is happening, though, I’m kind of having an existential crisis as to why, exactly, I do the work that I do. Because, at the heart of it, I’m a journalist first. I was trained as a journalist, I have two degrees in journalism, and I’ve spent the majority of my professional career as a news reporter/writer.

And on top of that, I’m a freelance journalist, which is basically the worst kind of journalist you could be, financially speaking. I’m dirt poor. Paying rent is a nail-biting trial on a monthly basis. And, as a result of such fiscal realities, freelance journalists, to be truly successful, have to be willing to write anything for anyone, within the bounds of one’s own personal ethics. (Yes, we journalists do have ethics.)

But at this moment I choose to fill a very specific niche — Negro Leagues (and, to a lesser extent, general minority sports history) journalism. I choose to focus on historical journalism because I have fallen in love with the research process of it. I love blending historical research with interviewing human experts and other sources to, I hope, create a product that presents history in a style and manner that is both appealing to research junkies and to the general public. That’s my task as an historical journalist.

But, as you can probably guess, convincing the average editor of a magazine or newspaper to commission an article on the Negro Leagues is, to say the least, a tough sell. “What’s the news hook?” “Why should this publication run this story now?”

So, no matter how deeply I, as a historical researcher, am enthralled with a certain subject — say, this topic — to a sports editor at the LA Times, the reaction is, “So what? Who cares about a single game that took place three-quarters of a century ago on the fringes of baseball? Why is that important to our readers now? Get outta here, dork, you’re buggin’ me.”

Therein lies the crux of the problem: If historical research I do won’t bring me an assignment and, therefore, income, should I continue doing it? Is it worth proceeding with the work for the sake of the work and for my love of it? Or do I bag it and pitch articles about town board meetings and school beauty pageants? What’s more important: Paying the bills or doing what I love?

It’s unfortunate that quite frequently that’s what my career comes down to a various points. And I hate it. It tears me up on just about a daily basis.

So what does this have to do with my impending trip to Seattle with Herb Simpson? Actually, I’m honestly not really sure. I’m really not. Or rather, I can’t put it into words. I can’t explain it or even consciously make sense of it.

What I do know is that Herb Simpson is an incredible, inspiring man, and every time I’m in his presence I feel honored and humbled. And I’m psyched about going to Seattle, just because it’s quite a humbling honor (notice a running theme here?).

But make no mistake: I will try to make as much money as I possibly can from my voyage to the Pacific Northwest. I’ll hustle like hell to see as many stories about the event to as many publications as possible. The trip is thus both a sign of how much I’m respected and liked as a writer and a researcher, but also a chance to make beaucoup bucks so I can pay my cell phone bill. The data overages just kill me.

Cannonball’s grandfather, “Uncle Mose”

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I am seemingly going to the end of the earth — or at least the limits of Ancestry.com — to somehow find any living descendant/relative of Cannonball Dick Redding (above, via www.mlb.com). To be honest, it’s driving me bananas. It’s seriously making my head spin. I’m reduced to maybe trying to find a descendant of Dick Redding’s widow’s second husband — if he was even her husband at all.

Dick Redding and his wife Edna didn’t have children, and apparently neither did either of his siblings, Leon or Minnie. Since Dick Redding is buried in Long Island National Cemetery — he served in the Army during WWI — I called the cemetery offices to see if they might have any sort of death record, and they claimed they didn’t. And it’s extremely difficult getting personnel records out of the U.S. military.

As a matter of fact, just now I tried calling the LIN Cemetery again and asked if there was any way they would have records of cause of death for a veteran. I was told, rather tersely, that no, national cemeteries don’t ask for death certificates or anything like that. They just need proof that he (or she) was a veteran, and that’s good enough for them. “We don’t require death certificates,” this soldier told me. “Those are the property of the family.” So I guess that’s that.

Anyway, I also took a flyer and tried looking up the last name Redding in the Atlanta white pages … only to find there’s more than 100 Reddings listed. So I then attempted to find anyone in the city of Atlanta government or administration named Redding. No luck. I guess I can try the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the local African-American museums and/or the Atlanta SABR chapter.

Gary Ashwill has graciously helped me try to procure death records for Redding from New York State, so we’re holding out hope that will turn out well. However, having been born, raised and lived in New York State for much of my life, it’s still hard to fathom the ineptitude and inefficiency of the NYS government bureaucracy.

While I try to sort all this how … somehow … I am finding out some fascinating stuff about Dick Redding’s family roots. That means, namely, his maternal grandfather, Moses Ford. Some backstory …

I’ve found very little out about Cannonball’s paternal side of the family. The pitcher was a Junior — his father was Richard Redding, or some variation thereof (in the 1910 Census, for example, he’s listed as Richard Reden).

But that’s as far back as I’ve been able to go. Richard Sr. was born in (roughly) 1855, so he was most likely a slave at birth. He married Cannonball’s mother, the former Laura Ford, on March 3, 1883, in the Washington County, Ga. (The marriage record spells Richard’s last name as Reddin.) Washington County is a fairly rural county in east central Georgia. The county seat is Sandersville.

Sandersville is the hometown of Laura Ford, Cannonball’s mother. She was the first child of Moses (or Mose) and Harriet Ford. The 1870 Census states that Laura was born in roughly 1862 — so, again, she was in all likelihood born into slavery. Here’s that record:

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That Census record reports that Moses Ford was born in about 1845, while Harriet was birthed about three years later. Moses is listed as a “farmer,” i.e. a dirt-poor sharecropper. The family is also listed in Washington County in the 1880 Census, with Mose a “laborer” and Harriet a “servant.”

But then Laura Ford married Richard Redding Sr., and the whole clan moved to Atlanta. Because the vast majority of the 1890 Census was destroyed by fire, the next time the Reddings turn up in the Census is 1900, and there’ a little oddity at that point. The 1900 document lists Laura as a single mother of Minnie, Richard Jr. and Leon on Ellis Street. I couldn’t find Richard Sr. in the Census.

But then, in 1910, Richard Sr. is back with the family. Richard Jr. — Cannonball — was born in 1893 (or 1895, depending on what military record you’re looking at).

But to me, the most intriguing part os what happened to Moses Ford, Cannonball’s maternal grandfather. When he came to the ATL, he settled on Houston Street, presumably with Harriet. He got a job as a janitor at the local post office, where he proceeded to become a long-serving, beloved figure in the USPS.

When Moses Ford died in early March 1918 — just about the time his famous grandson was heading off to war in Europe — the Atlanta Constitution ran a glowing obituary about “Uncle Moses”:

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The story was a lengthy four paragraphs long, an amount of ink that, at the time, was unheard of for a major white metropolitan daily. That the paper even mentioned the death of a “common” black laborer was stunning. But the fact that the publication gave so much space to the death of an African-American janitor is incredible.

The article, of course, while earnestly trying to offer praise to a black man at a time when lynchings in Georgia were commonplace, is laced with an underlying and subtle paternalism and recalcitrant racial superiority that identifies “Uncle Moses” as what would have been called, at the time, “a good Negro.” Here’s the first paragraph:

“There was real grief in all the departments of the Atlanta postoffice yesterday when it was announced that old Uncle Moses Ford had ‘gone where the good darkies go,’ and scores of the old attaches of the service were not ashamed of their tears.”

OK, that paragraph is just, just … loaded with such … Set aside the fact that the article called this supposedly beloved figure a “darkie” is appalling enough. But it also implies, quite insultingly, that there are two heavens — one for whites and one for the “good Negroes” who toe the line and, essentially, “know their place.” If you do that, then you’ll be lucky enough to go to darky heaven.

“Uncle Moses,” the article continues, “had been a faithful employee of the postoffice for more than a quarter of a century and all were proud to call him friend.” The article then reveals that Moses Ford had been a slave of the Renfroe family and “had never declared himself free.” I’ll give you time to slap your forehead in amazement.

Moses was appointed to the position of janitor by Col. J.W. Renfroe when the latter began serving as postmaster, and “Uncle Mose” went on to serve under seven postmasters.

However, the last paragraph is actually somewhat encouraging and heartening to the modern reader, because it offers some insight into the level of what seems to be actual, true respect for and trust in Moses Ford on the part of his white employers and colleagues:

“Old employees state that he had probably carried millions of the government’s money to the banks, as it had been the custom for years to accompany the cashier and help carry the deposits and many officials had been in the habit of getting Uncle Mose to do their banking business for them.”

The memory of Moses Ford was also long-lasting in Atlanta. When Moses Ford’s daughter (and Cannonball Redding’s mother) died in August 1934, the Atlanta Daily World, an African-American paper, ran a short story under the headline, “Former Local Baseball Star Loses Mother.”:

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In addition to offering some fascinating nuggets about Dick Redding’s youth — he was “somewhat of a colored mascot for the Atlanta Crackers and was well known for his pitching ability. … The management, at one time, it is said, deplored the fact that ‘Spaniard’ was a black boy and could not use him in their games” — the piece also recalls Moses Ford:

“Mrs. Redding is the daughter of Mose Ford, once a popular janitor at the United States Post Office here. Mr. Ford was affectionately called ‘Uncle Mose’ until his death.”

Ultimately, does any of this reveal any new avenues of investigation to find any living relatives of Cannonball Dick Redding? Most likely not. But another intriguing question is how much Cannonball knew about his familial roots, including his much honored grandfather, “Uncle Moses” Ford.

By all appearances it looks like Dick Redding left Atlanta — and possibly his family — for the baseball big-time and never looked back. I suppose he couldn’t be blamed for such a decision if he made it. Why associate with a place where your grandfather, despite (allegedly) gaining the love, respect and trust of the white powers-that-be, still be called a darky?

The ageless Algiers legend

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Last night I had the honor of visiting 93-year-old local Negro Leagues legend Herb Simpson at his home in the Algiers section of NOLA. The occasion was an interview for a handful of stories I have in the works.

I’ve been to Herb’s house about a half-dozen times, and each it time it’s quite a thrill. Herb is a man of few words, and when he has his hearing aid out he has a little trouble picking up what you’re saying, but he just has such a calm, tranquil, charismatic presence about him that every single time I’ve connected with him, I’ve had a blast.

Our topics of discussion ranged from his time with the Spokane Indians in 1952 and the Oakland Oaks in the 1954 preseason (both minor league teams), to his recent, groundbreaking induction into the New Orleans Professional Baseball Hall of Fame.

I was especially eager to ask him about his brief tenure in Oakland, which, to my knowledge, had been unknown to the general public. I uncovered a few articles in the black press and the Oakland Tribune detailing his time with the Oaks during spring training. he didn’t make the team and was sent back to the Albuquerque Dukes, with whom he enjoyed several fine seasons.

Regarding the NOPBHOF, Herb was gracious and modest, as usual — “It was real nice,” he said of the ceremony last month — but he also expressed a mixture of puzzlement and irritation when he related how the Hall of Fame plaque he was promised by the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs still hasn’t arrived. He was told it would take two weeks. It’s now three-plus weeks and counting.

(For previous blog posts about Herb and the upsetting lack of Negro Leagues in the NOPBHOF, go here and here.)

The last think I asked him as we sat on his sun-soaked porch was how he’s managed to live so long. He initially said two words: “Through Christ.” He then added, “I don’t smoke, and I’ve done all the things I’m supposed to do. When I had to go to school, I went to school, and when I had to go to church, I went to church.”

Is there a link between two Georgia Peaches?

As my mind swims and muses, a thought alights on my gray matter … I’ve been writing a lot about the ignominious, mysterious and tragic fate of legendary Negro Leagues pitcher (and should-be Hall of Famer) Cannonball Dick Redding.

Cannonball is a Georgia native, raised in the ATL. But my all-time favorite singer and (in my contrarian opinion) the greatest soulster of all time, Otis Redding, is from Macon, Ga.

Two famous African-American Reddings from the same state. Hmmm … could there be a distant familial connection between the two? Perhaps they are both descended from the same slaveholder or slaveholding family …

It would take an extreme amount of work and historical digging to establish such a link, with the chances of coming up empty, or at least unclear, fairly high. But wouldn’t it be something, though?

And to add to the lofty notion, remember that the Big O died a tragic death as well, just like Cannonball. Eerie … or just coincidence? Or a simple dream? But, as Otis said, “I’ve got dreams to remember …”

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Cannonball Dick Redding

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The Big O (via http://www.otisredding.com)