I just traded e-mails with a couple very knowledgeable sources about the 1925 murder in Harlem of South Carolina native Benjamin Adair and the possible connection to the incident of baseball stars Dave Brown, Frank Wickware and Oliver Marcell.
One of the people I’ve been e-mailing with is Gary Ashwill — who just today published a post to his blog much like mine here — one of the most dogged researchers of the Negro Leagues and other baseball topics I have ever met. He’s blogged in the past about Dave Brown at one time being charged with Adair’s murder and the apparent arrest of Brown roughly a dozen years later in Greensboro, N.C.
But Gary isn’t positive that the Dave Brown nabbed in the Tar Heel state on a totally unrelated charge is, in fact, the great Dave Brown, Negro Leagues twirler extraordinaire. It simply remains a mystery regarding whatever ended up happening with Dave Brown.
The second person I traded messages with was an ex-NYPD officer who said that the Adair case would, at this point, be housed in the NYPD Cold Case unit because it technically remains unsolved. He also warned that matters “things not always being what they appear to be, don’t rule out mistaken identity. Not every murderer kills the person he/she intended to kill.”
Perhaps that fact, he said, is why such incidents as mysterious murders are so intriguing to people. Just look, for example, at the unbelievably massive research/writing/speculation/fictionalization that has been done on Jack the Ripper in the last 150 years.
The Adair case, combined with my probing of the last years and deaths of Sol White and Dick Redding in Long Island mental hospitals — a challenge that Gary has offered to help me with, btw — as well as several other subjects, has just finally made me realize how much mystery and just plain unknown there is in the history of the Negro Leagues. Just so, so much remains unsolved, and perhaps always will be.
And some of it just makes no sense on the face of it. Take, for example, the case of 19th century St. Louis businessman, political activist, gambler and base ball mogul Henry Bridgewater. The guy was a titan in the 19th century blackball scene. He was also extremely wealthy. And yet he’s on the list of possibilities for the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project. Professor James Brunson, the preeminent expert on black base ball in the 1800s, told me the fact that such a successful rich man is seemingly buried in an unmarked grave just, well, makes no sense. Perhaps, James said, Bridgewater’s headstone was stolen or otherwise lost. The situation just begs the simple question: Why?
Another case in point: The origins of Hall of Fame hurler Cyclone Joe Williams, a subject that has piqued my interest because Joe was reportedly of mixed black and Native-American ancestry. We know that he came from somewhere in Guadalupe County, Texas, probably the small town of Seguin and was born sometime in the 1880s.
But the following information just amazes. With the aide of Bill Staples Jr., I’ve found that the 1900 Census lists two families in Guadalupe County that could be the ones we’re looking for. One family has a “Joe William” (no s) born in 1886, with a mother named “Lillie William.” But the other family has a “Joe Williams” born in 1880 with a mother named “Lottie Williams.”
Given that at the time, birth certificates weren’t required in Texas, and that, unfortunately, both families were African-American, and the establishment in the South, including Texas, didn’t exactly concern itself too much with anything to do with their black residents — as long as they stayed away from whites, of course — the ongoing confusion about Cyclone’s roots is as understandable as it is frustration.
ill, by the way, tends to believe that the “Joe William” born in 1886 is, in fact, the one that went on to a Hall of Fame pitching career, and I definitely agree with him.
But the mysteries don’t end there. If Cyclone was, in fact, part-Native American, exactly what tribe is he linked to? Some biographies say he was part Comanche; others say Cherokee. Two very distinct and unique cultures.
And trying to chronicle Joe’s Indian ancestry will almost certainly enter into a rat’s nest of mystery, given the massive upheaval in the American West in the 19th, caused by our country’s theft of the natives homeland and livelihood, all in the name of “Manifest Destiny” and “the White Man’s Burden.” What are country did in the 19th century was, quite simply, genocide.
So, when you take the two strains of Joe Williams’ heritage, one is almost certainly rooted in slavery, and the other is grounded amidst a backdrop of genocide. How can anyone possibly prove where Joe Williams came from?
I apologize for rambling here. It’s just that at times like these, it’s hard not to get overwhelmed with all the work we researchers, historians and journalists have to do, and with the knowledge that, no matter how hard we work, we might never know who killed Benjamin Adair, or why Dick Redding was committed to and died in an insane asylum/house of horrors, or if Joe Williams was Comanche, Cherokee or even Indian at all.
But while it’s overwhelming, it’s all the more reason to keep at it, to keep pursuing the truth. Not to veer too far off the path, but to quote one of my heroes and favorite TV shows (Fox Mulder and “The X-Files”), “The truth is out there.”
Obviously the truth we as Negro League historians doesn’t involve little green men or flukemen … or does it? There was an episode of The X-Files called “The Unnatural,” which was a brilliant look at the Negro Leagues placed in the context of alien visits. I know, it seems impossible, but if you can ever watch it, definitely do. It’s very touching and might even choke you up in the end.
It also features David Duchovny wearing a Josh Gibson jersey. Pretty cool. (And yes, that is indeed Jesse L. Martin, aka Det. Green from “Law & Order,” playing the role of Josh Exley, an homage to the real Josh).