Finally Bill Binga’s time

Representatives and volunteers from the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project and SABR gathered in Minneapolis Saturday to dedicate the new grave stone for William “Bill” Binga, a turn-of-the-century blackball great about whom a bunch of people have written, including (he said, not-so-humbly) myself here and here.

I unfortunately couldn’t be at the ceremony, but from what I hear, it was fantastic. Here’s some coverage in the Twin Cities media about it in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

A couple thoughts … One is that it seems like the St. Paul paper’s article cribbed a few things from the article on Binga I did for Hour Detroit magazine. That’s kind of cool, I guess. People are reading my stuff, which is kind of gratifying and that I’m making a difference, that I’m helping to shine a light on these tragically ignored men and women.

Two, it looks like the various Twin Cities TV stations didn’t see fit to cover the ceremony at all. Take that as you will.

Finally, and certainly most importantly, congrats and thanks to Pete Gorton, Todd Peterson, Jeremy Krock and all the other volunteers who worked so hard to make it all happen. And much gratitude and respect to Dave Winfield, his foundation and the Padres for funding the bulk of the project on this. Winfield proved again his commitment to and love for the Negro Leagues and other pre-integration African-American baseball figures.

Props, as they say, to all.

Gretna’s own J.B. Spencer


New Orleans has such an untapped, complex and compelling history of African-American baseball that virtually on a weekly basis, I uncover something, or someone, new. Unfortunately — because this shows how ignored the NOLA blackball scene has been — I’m pretty much the expert on Crescent City black hardball, almost by default.

While I’m constantly and passionately trying to uncover this rich tradition, I’m also sad that so many Big Easy baseball players have been ignored. (For  reasons that will hopefully develop this week, I’ll write more extensively about this in general terms later this week.)

One of them is the man above, utility infielder Joseph B. Spencer Jr., a native of the city of Gretna, La., just over the river from  NOLA proper. It’s where I currently live, and  where another local black baseball legend, Wesley Barrow, is apparently buried in an unmarked grave.

Gretna also bumps against the Algiers section of New Orleans. (It’s weird … A part of New Orleans, Algiers, is actually separated from the rest of it by the river on what’s called the West Bank, where separate towns like Gretna, Harvey, Marrero and Westwego also sit. Not confused  yet? Well, the West Bank is actually more to the south and east sides of the river and from New Orleans. Like I said, it’s goofy. It took me like a year to get used to it. All those towns I mentioned, btw, had their own black amateur and sandlot hardball teams at one point or another.)

The Algiers neighborhood is where Herb Simpson, former Negro Leaguer and possibly the last living link to that bygone era, has lived his entire life. He’s somewhat of a local hero, having become the first Negro Leaguer inducted into the New Orleans Professional Baseball Hall of Fame and an oft-interviewed personality by various local media outlets. (More about Herb later this week, for the same reasons to which I alluded in the second paragraph.)

Herb played baseball with J.B. Spencer. Lots of baseball, actually, from the West Bank sandlots to the Birmingham Black Barons to the Seattle Steelheads to the traveling Harlem Globetrotters baseball aggregation. And they were roommates for much of their careers. When Spencer died in 2003 at the age of 83, his obituary in the New Orleans Times-Picayune stated that Spencer was the “devoted friend of Herbert Simpson.”

“I miss him,” Herb told me this weekend. “He and I were good friends.”

“He was a real nice person,” Herb added.

Joseph B. Spencer  Jr.  was born Aug. 4, 1919, to Joseph Spencer Sr. and Alexcener Spencer. He was raised at 716 Fried St., near the corner of 7th Street. Today, Fried Street is one of the byways that bounds J.B. Spencer Park, which, sadly, I didn’t even know existed until, well, just this moment when I looked up the address on Google Maps.

Joseph Spencer Sr. was a  longshoreman on the river docks who was quite active in the longshoremen’s union in town. In fact, in the 1940s he led an offshoot labor group in an unsuccessful attempt to form its own, new union, an effort that was ultimately shot down by the National Labor Relations Board.

The neighborhood in which Joe Jr. was raised was a mixed African-American and Italian one;  several Italian families led by first-generation immigrants from the southern European country resided on nearby blocks.  One of then was the DeLuca family, headed by Frank DeLuca, who owned a grocery store.

Joe Jr., or J.B., attended Gilbert Academy and developed his passion and skill at the national pastime. While his stated position was second base, he was often used throughout his career as a utility infielder who reportedly could play any position on the field except pitcher.

Spencer began, much like Herb Simpson did, on the sandlots of the West Bank and greater NOLA area, including the Algiers Giants semipro team, where he was joined on the roster by Herb Simpson. The pair developed a friendship that lasted their entire lives.

“He was a real nice person,” Herb told me this weekend.

J.B.’s hardball career took off when he entered his 20s, and by 1941 he was a regular with the Birmingham Black Barons, who were managed by Winfield Welch, another New Orleans native who became a near-legendary Negro Leagues skipper by guiding the Barons to multiple Negro American League titles in the early to mid-1940s and, at the same time, becoming a skilled developer of young talent like J.B. Spencer.


(I’ll talk more about Welch soon,  hopefully. I’ll also look at how there was definitely a funnel of talent from the Crescent City to the Black Barons, who served as the first big-time team for many a NOLA lad. In addition, from Birmingham sprang a pipeline of talent that ended up in Seattle with the Steelheads and then the Globetrotters, a migration that included both J.B. Spencer and Herb Simpson.)

Spencer stayed with the Black Barons for several years before jaunting up to Pittsburgh to join the famous Homestead Grays, who were studded with legendary Hall of Famers. When Spencer arrived at the Grays’ camp in April 1943, he was joined by yet another New Orleanian, pitcher John Wright, who would eventually anchor the Homestead mound staff and, most famously, become the second black player signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers after Jackie Robinson. (For more on Wright, see this article I did for Baseball America.)

It was with the Grays that Spencer evolved into a well regarded infielder in the Negro National League, although it was at times it seemed to be a struggle to earn the same kind of reputation as other infielders. Take, for  example, a June 1943 wire service article previewing the Grays’ upcoming clash with the New York Cubans:

“Granting that Spencer is the second base sensation of the year, he is not on equal terms with Cox, who guards the hot corner for the Cubans — and swings a mean bat.”

But such slights shouldn’t have bothered Spencer,  who helped form one of the greatest infields in Negro Leagues history with the Grays. When you’re manning the dirt with greats like Buck Leonard, Sam Bankhead and Jud Wilson, Spencer could have told the press to buzz  off.

Ironically enough, the 1943 Grays went on to win the Negro National League pennant and defeat Spencer’s  former team, the Negro American League champion Black Barons, in the Negro World Series that year.


The 1943 Homestead Grays

But Spencer, much like many top-flight Negro Leaguers of the day, jumped around from team to team, and so he stayed with the Grays for just a pair of seasons before hopping to the New York Cubans — the team who a year before had allegedly been of higher quality than what Spencer could offer.

However, his stay with the Cubans was fleeting, and later in 1945 he was shipped back to Birmingham, of all places, where he reunited with Welch and led the media to state that the “second base position seems to be in good hands with J.B. Spencer.”

In all, Spencer spent roughly 15 years as a player in the various levels of Negro Leagues, a career that included a lot of barnstorming miles and a shared hotel room  with teammate Herb Simpson. Spencer then reportedly played for a few minor-league teams in the early 1950s after the integration of organized baseball before retiring, according to a May 22, 2003, obituary in the Times-Picayune.

J.B. then joined the Gretna Recreation Department, where  he was employed for many years, a length of service that certainly contributed to the city naming a park after him.

Joseph B. Spencer Jr. died May 16, 2003, and was buried in McDonoghville Cemetery in his hometown.

Isabelle Baxter, baseball — and bowling — queen


The more I explore the issue of if and when Rhode Island native Lizzie Murphy played for a black barnstorming team for one game, the more it seems like both history and current researchers are mixing her up to some degree with Isabelle Baxter. The source of the confusion is two-fold.

One, they both took the field (or reportedly did, in Lizzie’s case) for a team with monikers involving the words Cleveland and Giants. As an earlier post of mine discussed, there are three possible teams Murphy could have played for — the Cleveland Giants, a team based in that Ohio city that jumped from the semipro lots to the Negro National League in 1933 for a few months; the Cleveland Colored Giants, a squad also based in Ohio but run by Charlie Tilley, a New Hampshire athletic here in the first few decades of the 20th century; or another barnstorming team called the Cleveland Colored Giants, this one based in Rhode Island.

Two, popular belief seems to be that Lizzie Murphy played for a touring African-American team when it sauntered through her home state in 1933, the same year Isabelle Baxter reportedly played for the sandlot , soon-to-be-NNL Cleveland Giants.

But a few things help to bring clarity to this conundrum (I love that word, btw, not sure why). One is that fact that Isabelle Baxter was black, while Lizzie Murphy  was, umm, white. Plus Isabelle was from Cincinnati, Ohio, while Lizzie was from Warren, R.I. That much we do know (photos of the two women help clarify the situation, as you can imagine).

Something else confirms, apparently undeniably, that Isabelle Baxter was, in fact, the one who played a single game for the Cleveland Giants in 1933, before they went to the NNL (where, of course, they performed abysmally and folded after the season). The source? A June 17, 1933, article in the Cleveland Call and Post, under the headline, “Girl Ball Player Aids Cleveland 9.” To quote forthwith:

“Isabelle Baxter, clever little girl second baseman, playing this season with the famous Cleveland Giants, featured in the opening game of the season at Hooper field at Cleveland when the Giants easily trounced the Canton Clowns, 14 to 8. Miss Baxter took five fielding changes,  her only bobble coming when, after a spectacular stop back of first base, she pulled Tom Ponder off the bag with a wide throw. At the bat she hit safely once and drove two hard-hit balls to the outfield.”

So that’s that. (Gary Ashwill did a brief post about Baxter a little while ago. In fact, the article reproduced above came from his WEb site. I still haven’t figured out how to convert PDFs to JPEGs.) The article never mentions the NNL, so it’s probably safe to assume that this came before the G-men hopped up to the big-time. The piece also doesn’t indicate whether Baxter would keep playing for the team, but the line “playing this season” seems to indicate that she would be on the roster a while. Prevailing knowledge is that she competed with the Giants just once before being summarily dropped when the aggregation went NNL. That belief is augmented by the fact that there’s no more mention of her playing for the team after that point.

Isabelle was born in Cincy around 1915, per the 1930 Census, to William and (I think) Florenza (or Florenda, the record is a bit hard to make out) Baxter. The Baxters had a fairly large brood — the 1930 count has three daughters and two sons, with Isabelle being the second-oldest of the bunch. William made his living laboring in street construction.

That would have made her just a tender 18 years old when she suited up for the Giants. But that wasn’t the only time she competed with men, at least according to a photo and long caption in the Sept. 30, 1950, Call and Post. The package is called “Baseball Queen” and features a long, vertical picture of Baxter standing with her hands on her hips. Here’s the first paragraph of the subsequent caption:

“Miss Isabelle Baxter, manager of the Harlem Queens of Chicago and four of her teammates, Evelyn Clark, Laura Hill, Paulene Saunders and Bernice Graham, have returned to Cincinnati after a tour of the western states and Canada, with a record of 69 games won and 25 lost.”

(Baxter apparently took a page from Abe Saperstein’s book by tacking on the “Harlem” name to a team from Chicago, just like Saperstein did with the Globetrotters. Phonies. The Rens are the true African-American hoop pioneers from Harlem.)

The caption discusses Isabelle’s softball exploits. It then adds this: “She also played second base on a hard ball men’s team, the Superior Athletic Club of Springfield, Ohio.”

But there’s another fascinating aspect to Baxter’s athletic career: bowling.

It’s OK if you just read that word and want to bail now. Bowling doesn’t have a reputation as being all that enthralling for non-participants and lovers of the sport. Snarky pundits will claim that the words “sport,” “athlete” and “bowling” shouldn’t be used in the same sentence.

But like it or not, bowling is one of the biggest participatory sports in the world, and once you do get on the lanes, you find that it’s actually really fun, challenging and far from easy.

And, in the case of black history, it’s also significant and overlooked, partly because just like so many other American sports organizations, bowling was rigidly segregated into the mid-20th century. For decades, the American Bowling Congress and the Women’s International Bowling Congress official barred all people of color until 1950 in both cases.


That injustice gave rise to, in 1939 in Detroit, the National Bowling Association, a predominantly but certainly not exclusively African-American group that still exists and that has, for three-quarters of a century, fostered inclusion and participation of all races in bowling. The group today focuses much of its efforts on getting youth involved in the sport, according to TNBA’s Web site. The group asserts that bowling can help break down social, racial and economic barriers as well.

But before the ABC and WIBC dropped their segregation clauses, TNBA set up its own network of local, regional and national clubs and tournaments, parallel to those of the white organizations. In that way, TNBA served much of the same function at Negro Leagues baseball.

And, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, one of the most active and successful TNBA members was …  Isabelle Baxter. She apparently kicked butt, in fact. In 1947, for example, when TNBA held its sixth annual national tournament (in Cleveland, which appears to have been somewhat of a focal point for the organization), Isabelle cruised to polyurethane glory.  Said the April 26, 1947, Call and Post:

“However, the weekend sensation was Isabelle Baxter of Cincinnati. The Queen City lass, rolling nine games in the five-man team, doubles and singles, compiled an amazing 1,732 total [pin count] for first place in the women’s All-Events.”

That total easily outdistanced second-place Gladys Chestnutt of Indianapolis (who seems to have been Baxter’s foil and main rival). Isabelle also teamed with Maxine Webb to claim the women’s doubles crown. The triumph over Chestnutt was probably a sweet one for Baxter — less than three months earlier, the Indy native trumped Isabelle at the second annual National Bowling Classic for Women in Indiana.

Baxter was a kegler force to be reckoned with for a while, too; at the 1952 National YMCA Bowling Tournament, she  and  Webb, her doubles partner, were dubbed “star bowlers.”

Isabelle Baxter: Multi-sport star. But I want to know this: Could she pick up the deadly 7-10 split? It’s impossible, I tells ya!

Anyhoo, it seems like African-American bowling history is an untapped, largely unexplored topic. Someone should look into that.

Next up: Bill Binga


Tomorrow, Saturday, June 28, a group of hardy SABR volunteers, led by Peter Gorton and Todd Peterson, will host a ceremony in Minneapolis to dedicate a grave marker for pre-Negro Leagues star third baseman William “Bill” Binga, about whom I wrote an article for Hour Detroit magazine as well as several posts on this blog. I’ll also be making a presentation about Binga’s roots in Detroit in August at the annual SABR Jerry Malloy conference.

But tomorrow the focus will be square on the folks in Minnesota who have given so much of their time, energy and heart to recognizing Bill Binga and the great’s time in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Yesterday I spoke with Peter for an article I’m drafting for the Twin Cities’ alternative newspaper, City Pages. That article won’t be published until mid-July (timed for the MLB All-Star game in Minneapolis) so it won’t focus too much on the ceremony itself.

As a result, I thought I’d share a few comments from Peter about the event tomorrow, its purpose and its creation.

He said the goal is to shine a light on a Major League-talented third baseman who has been overlooked because of his relatively low-profile but greatly undervalued position on the field, especially compared to a power hitter like Home Run Johnson or a flashy pitcher like John Donaldson, both of who have previously received grave markers from SABR’s Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project. He said a quality third baseman was crucial for a successful traveling aggregation of the day.

“Everybody knows about the guy who hit the ball over the fence, and everybody knows about the pitchers like John Donaldson, but no one cares about a third baseman,” Peter said. “But when it comes down to it, particular from the 1880s to the 1920s, third base was a key position on the field. You couldn’t have a good team barnstorming through the sticks without a third baseman.”

That’s why it’s especially important to fill in the massive holes in our knowledge about Bill Binga’s life and career, especially because Binga was, in fact, a great, possibly Hall of Fame-worthy third sacker. Fleshing out those gaps awareness gaps, Peter said, is needed to reignite Binga’s impact, as well as the impact of the so many other overlooked African-American stars from around the turn of the century.

“What we’re working toward is writing in that legacy, that quest,” he said. “That’s what he said in our press release about the William Binga dedication. That’s really the reason we’re having this for him. That’s the message we have with this Binga thing. If we get an opportunity like this to tell who he is, then we have to get that (knowledge) out there.

In fact, Peter said he and his daughter discovered Binga’s unmarked burial spot way back in 2008, saying “we could have put something in the ground right then.”

But he and other researchers wanted to know more about Binga so they could tell the public more about him when they did unveil a grave marker. He said that ever since that day six years ago, he’s almost felt an obligation to pursue the grave marker effort and dig into Binga’s past. Also, being the major force behind the Donaldson Network, a large and ever-growing group of people dedicated to preserving the memory of pitcher John Donaldson (who also lived and played extensively in Minnesota), was also an impetus to find the connections between the two players.

And that — each person or group focusing on researching and uncovering facts about a single player or a small group of them so the Negro Leagues community can collectively piece together the big picture — is how Gorton thinks research into the pre-Negro Leagues must be pursued. And there’s still a long way to go, he added, giving the example of pitcher Walter Ball, who was almost omnipresent in the northern Midwest around the turn of the century. “Someone has to pick it up on Walter Ball,” he said. “We need to know about these lesser-known people.”

But for now, it’s Binga’s turn in the spotlight.

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“William Binga should be celebrated because his legacy was taken away from him,” Peter said. “It has to be about someone who paved the way (for later black players). We’re trying to give the modern reader an idea of the tribulations these people endured for the benefit of those who came later.”

One final note … Gorton said the Binga volunteers have informed the Minnesota Twins about tomorrow’s ceremony, and they were invited to attend. But Gorton isn’t holding his breath for Joe Mauer to show up to join them in honoring William Binga. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, to have a former MVP like Mauer standing at Bill Binga’s grave? Talk about publicity for your cause.

“They certainly have the opportunity to come,” Peter said of the Twins. “And that would be great if someone did.”

Home Run Johnson ceremony


SABR’s Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project‘s latest beneficiary was Grant “Home Run” Johnson, one of the most prodigious power hitters of the deadball era. On Tuesday, SABR held a ceremony unveiling the burial stone that was placed at Johnson’s previously unmarked grave in Lakeside Cemetery in the Buffalo, N.Y., suburb of Hamburg thanks to the efforts of the NLBGMP. Here’s an article on the event from the Buffalo News.

Just a quick comment here … This one is special to me because I have cousins in the Buffalo area (which is maybe 70 miles west of my hometown of Rochester) who at one point lived in Hamburg. I feel like I have a long-distance connection to what happened this week. Congratulations and thanks to everyone who was involved in raising funds and publicity for the benefit of this legendary but forgotten player who many believe belongs in the Hall of Fame.

I’ll have a couple more NLBGMP-related posts over the next couple days. Tomorrow I’ll preview the grave marker ceremony scheduled for Saturday for William Binga in Minneapolis, while Saturday I’ll have an interview with Buddy Strong, a descendant of Ted Strong, who recently received a burial stone.


KIC Image

That there above is a long-winded, legal-speak-laden rejection letter from Pilgrim Psychiatric Center on Long Island. I had applied for the release of all documents and files related to the hospitalization of Hall of Famer and African-American baseball legend King Solomon “Sol” White, who was institutionalized at and died in nearby Central Islip State Hospital in the 1940s.

The hospital, run by the New York State Office of Mental Health, cited legal and privacy reasons for rejecting my request. Here’s the last paragraph of the letter, which I received yesterday (June 23) and which was dated June 17:

“While it has always been our position that a person’s right to confidentiality of clinical information does not change upon his or [her] death, the federal regulations have given us some additional specific guidance on access to records of deceased patient[s]. Therefore to conform with both the Federal and New York State laws and OMH policy and procedure, we are unable to confirm or deny the existence of a record without a family member’s request or a NYS court order.”

The letter states a bit higher:

“It has long been recognized that the very fact of one’s mental illness, and receiving professional help for such illness, can, if generally revealed, cause a person to be subjected to prejudice and stigma in one’s personal and professional life. We also recognize that effective and lasting psychiatric therapy can take place only in an environment of privacy and trust in which the patient knows that his/her statements will be held in confidence.”

The letter is signed Deborah A. Strube, RHIA, Health Information Management Administrator.

A few thoughts here:

* First off, believe me, I personally understand how crucial privacy is to the recognition and treatment of mental illness and the stigma that, unfortunately, still comes with it in our society. I also understand that, because of various laws, the hospital administration very well could have been hamstrung, with nothing to legally be able to do but send this letter.

* Having said that, note how the administration didn’t just reject the release of the requested records, it declined to revealed if such records even exist.

* However, we know that, via the uncovering and piecing together of several documents (see this and this), that Sol White was committed to and did die at CIMH. We also know that he died from something fairly normal, especial for someone his age: pulmonary thrombosis. So that’s not too disappointing.

* But it doesn’t answer why White was hospitalized in the first place, which now, at this point, remains the big unknown. We also need to realize that this is the 1940s, back before the full development of modern psychiatric and psychological treatments, such as revolutions in therapy and medications. This is a time when someone could be hospitalized in a facility that was basically just a warehouse for people had become a mere inconvenience to the people in their lives.

* There is hope, however — John Thorn, Jim Overmyer and others have leads on possible living relatives/descendants of Sol White. If such people exist, they could provide a proper, legal and successful request for the records for which I asked.

* Still, and bottom line, this does not bode well for the release of documents pertaining to the hospitalization at Pilgrim hospital itself — which, decades ago, was often a house of horrors — of Cannonball Dick Redding, who, according to some sources, died there under so-called mysterious circumstances. But, as Gary Ashwill just noted to me, we were able to ascertain at least how Sol White died via alternate methods, so there perhaps is a glimmer of hope for Cannonball’s fate. On the other hand, if Redding did, in fact, die an unseemly death at Pilgrim, the state has even more to lose by divulging his records.

Military baseball in the Northwest

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(Aerial view of Paine Field today)

Garner Booker was, you could say, an Okie from Muskogee (apologies to Merle!) when he arrived at the Paine Field air base in Everett, Wash., shortly after enlisting in the Army in February 1942.

Born in that city in 22 years earlier, Booker was one of thousands of African Americans who enlisted to serve in a war that was fought for the ideals of justice and ethnic equality despite the fact that the very Army in which they served was still enforcing rigid racial segregation within it own ranks.

As a result, when Booker signed up to play for Paine Field’s rec baseball program, he was placed on the station’s Brown Bombers African-American club, a team separate from the air base’s white Paine Field aggregation.

But Booker, a right fielder, and his African-American teammates forged ahead, competing in regional military service leagues and state amateur tournaments after being formed in 1943. The team was studded with several hardball diamonds in the rough, such as Seminal Brack, who, according to one source, was “the smallest athlete on the base” but nonetheless a “midget Negro flash.”

The Brown Bombers were part of the Seattle area’s rich tradition of service baseball, and they were one of several African-American military teams in the state of Washington during the war era. Another, for example, was the aggregation from the McChord air base in Tacoma, which occasionally clashed with the Paine Field Brown Bombers on the diamond.

The Brown Bombers were brought to my attention by Chieko Phillips, the exhibitions manager at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, which is currently showing an exhibition on black baseball in Washington.

Chieko and I had corresponded a bit over a year ago, when I was doing an article on the Seattle Steelheads for Seattle Magazine. I reached out to her again a couple weeks ago soon after arrangements were made for me to journey to the Jet City to cover New Orleans native Herb Simpson’s second visit to Seattle in July.

Herb, as I’ve written about before, is the last living member of the Steelheads, Seattle’s entry into the short-lived West Coast Negro Baseball League in 1946. Next month he’ll again be the guest of the Seattle Mariners as the MLB team celebrates its annual African-American Heritage Day.

I contacted Chieko earlier this month because Herb’s visit to Seattle will include both a visit to the NWAAM to check out its baseball exhibit, as well as an appearance at the Everett AquaSox game against Spokane on July 27. The game scheduling is kind of neat because Herb played for the Spokane Indians in 1952. And it just so happens I did an article on that recently. 🙂

The AquaSox are a short-season Single-A team based in the Snohomish County city of about 100,000 people roughly 25 miles north of Seattle. The Sox are in the North Division of the Northwest League and are a Mariners affiliate.

I emailed Chieko because I was curious if Everett had any African-American baseball teams in its history, and she uncovered the Paine Field Brown Bombers.

The Brown Bombers seem to have had a brief existence, however, but in a very good way — a year after they were formed, the Bombers were merged with the Paine Field white team in one of the Army’s earliest desegregation efforts.

The highlight of the Brown Bombers’ day in the sun — yes, there are days of sun in the Pacific Northwest — was their participation in the 1943 state semipro tournament, which was actually held in Everett during that July. The tourney also included the defending champions, the Fort Lawson Warriors, as well as the Fort Lewis Medics, two local teams (the Everett Tyees and the Rexes), the Bellingham Bells, a squad from Auburn, and the white Paine Field team.

Unfortunately, the Brown Bombers didn’t fare very well, getting knocked out of the tournament early via a 7-2 loss to the mighty Fort Lawton team, which had just been made even better by the addition of several more ringers to the squad.

(But the Bombers shouldn’t have felt bad — Paine Field’s white team wasn’t any better, also getting bumped from the tourney bracket.)

I’m hoping to accompany Herb to the AquaSox game on July 27; I love minor-league ball, especially the “smaller” city teams like Everett. The games are so much more intimate and cozy; the stands, and therefore the fans, are much closer to the field and the players than in sprawling Major League parks. So hopefully I’ll be able to issue a report from Everett that night.

Many thanks to Chieko Phillips for the tip about the Brown Bombers. I’m also looking forward to attending the reception for Herb at the NWAAM and finally meeting Chieko.

Lizzie leads to Charlie leads to … the other famous Cannonball


I don’t really remember how I tripped over the story of Lizzie “Spike” Murphy (above, via, a Warren, R.I., native who, via spunky but very respectable play, became known as “the Queen of Baseball” in the 1920s and ’30s. She played in All Star contests and other exhibition games with and against Major Leaguers before she retired to a life of a married mill worker. She became something of a semi-pro legend in New England, where she won the admiration of female and male hardball fans because of her talent and grit. From the entry on her in the “Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball,” edited by Leslie Heaphy and Mel Anthony May:

“Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Murphy was a serious full time ballplayer, not a dabbler or a part timer.” Referring to a slew of other famous early women athletes, the book states that “Most of these women were, like Lizzie Murphy, serious players who would have liked to have the chance to play regularly in the major leagues — real baseball players who were born too soon.”

I write about Murphy now especially because the 50th anniversary of her death is coming up on July 28.

But the trivia fact about her life that triggered my attention the most was that, on at least two occasions, she reportedly crossed into the world of the Negro Leagues and African-American baseball. One story has it that she once successfully faced the great Satch. From the Web page of the town of Warren Sports Hall of Fame:

“Lizzie once singled off the legendary Satchel Paige when he was pitching for a black baseball team in New York. When asked if Satchel had gone easy on her, the great Josh Gibson said that Satch didn’t want to be charged with a hit by a woman of any color.”

The most fascinating, and possibly mythical, event of Murphy’s storied career was when she reportedly played first base for an African-American team called the Cleveland Colored Giants when the squad toured her native Rhode Island. But if such an event did take place, it seems to be clouded by mystery, quite possibly a legend that grew and grew over time, to the point that many bios of Lizzie repeat the assertion numerous times.

With the 50th anniversary of her passing approaching, I decided to dig into this story and try to nail down the truth. Unfortunately, I was unable to. There were a few reasons for this failure. One, to be honest, I’m still learning the science of hardball research, what Gary Ashwill wonderfully calls baseball archaeology. But more importantly, I couldn’t come across a single article — at least not in several online newspaper databases — that definitely reports on the alleged incident.

But the third and most confounding reason is that, in the early 1930s when Murphy supposedly accomplished the feat, there were at least four blackball teams that incorporated the name of the Cleveland Giants or Colored Giants floating around.

The most famous is, of course, the Cleveland Giants, that Ohio city’s representative in the big-time Negro National League. The Giants replaced the financially doomed Columbus Blue Birds in mid-1933 but didn’t fare any better, folding at the end of that NNL season. Because of the Giants’ existence in 1933 and the propensity of top-level black teams to supplement their revenue via extensive barnstorming, many believe it was for this team that Lizzie Murphy, who was white, appeared.

I tend to disagree with this assessment, partially because another woman, Isabelle Baxter, an African-American woman who did play for an apparently different Cleveland Giants team in 1933. According to the June 17, 1933, Cleveland Call and Post:

“Isabelle Baxter, clever little girl second baseman, playing this season with the famous Cleveland Giants, featured in the opening game of the season at Hooper Field at Cleveland when the Giants easily trounced the strong Canton Clowns, 14 to 8. Miss Baxter took five fielding changes, her only bobble coming when, after a spectacular stop back of first base, she pulled Tom Ponder off the bag with a wide throw. At the bat she hit safely once and drove two hard-hit balls to the outfield.”

Then there was the Cleveland Colored Giants, apparently a semipro team based in the same Ohio burg for a couple decades. They were headed up by a Portsmouth, N.H., native called Charles Tilley, who starred in football and baseball at Portsmouth High School around the turn of the century and became something of a folk hero in those parts. This aggregation toured New England extensively, which is no surprise given the team’s owner’s nativity in the region.

Then, and most frustratingly, there was actually a team dubbed the Cleveland Colored Giants based in … Rhode Island, possibly Newport. D’oh! Are you kidding me? The team is outlinde in an essay, “Black Grays and Colored Giants: Black Baseball in Rhode Island, 1866-1949,” by Robert Cvornyek. This Cleveland Colored Giants, writes Cvornyek, were headed up by “the father of Rhode Island black baseball,” Dan Whitehead, who “served as the state’s earliest and most successful promoter of the black game.” White formed the original Providence Colored Giants and “the state’s own Cleveland Colored Giants.”

It’s these two touring squads  — the Ohio one and the Rhode Island one —  that create the most confusion about which team Lizzie Murphy played for, and exactly when she did it, if she even did at all. New England newspapers of the day, especially those in Rhode Island, make mention of a touring Cleveland Colored Giants team but don’t specify whether they were referring to the Ohio team or the Rhode Island team.

The Aug. 26, 1937, Boston Globe, for example, gives a brief report on the town team from Belmont, Mass., plastering the Cleveland Colored Giants 9-0. But it doesn’t specify which Cleveland Colored Giants. And what about the Cleveland Colored Giants that played the Winchendon Springs AA team near Fitchburg, Mass., in August 1940? The Aug. 17, 1940, Fitchburg Sentinel doesn’t specify, although the paper’s article does note that these Colored Giants had toured the Midwest, West and even Cuba, journeys that seem much more likely for a team from a bigger city like Cleveland, Ohio, than from Newport, R.I.

Now, we can probably assume that the CCG’s (yeah, I’m lazy, so I’m abbreviating) that got clobbered by the Erhart Kramers, 15-2, near Elyria, Ohio, in August 1953 were the CCG’s from the Ohio city; while there have been reports that the

Ohio Colored Giants frequently toured New England, I haven’t come across any reports asserting that the Newport, R.I., CCG’s ventured to Ohio. And, it’s safe to assume the Cleveland Colored Giants who played in the Ohio NBC state tournament in July 1948 were, um, from Ohio. Ditto the CCG’s that played a pair of games in Steubenville, Ohio, in July 1933. According to a write-up in the Steubenville Herald-Star:

“Some of the stars with the Giants are ‘Specs’ Roberts, former Pittsburgh Crawford player, and a pitcher with a submarine  delivery; Satan Taylor [ed. note. Yep, that’s what his name appears to be], rated a whiz of a first baseman; Stevens, who is reputed to have as much speed as Lefty Groves [sic]; Dixon, catcher and manager of the club, formerly caught with the Chicago American Giants, and is regarded as one of the smartest men in colored baseball circles.”

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Colored Giants that played the Philadelphia Giants in Providence, R.I., in May 1930 were certainly the Rhode Island one. How do we know? Because the May 8, 1930, Philadelphia Tribune states that these CCG’s were led by Dan Whitehead.

You need a scorecard to keep track of all these teams. Maybe an abacus, too. Or Pictionary.

Now, of course, none of this solves the question of Lizzie Murphy playing a game for a team called the Cleveland Colored Giants sometime in the 1930s. It would probably take getting one’s hands on archives of the Warren, R.I., newspaper, Lizzie’s hometown, or maybe finding and talking to a living relative of hers.

But while that conundrum remains cloudy, I was thrilled when, during my research on this, I came across Charlie Tilley, owner and manager of one of the Cleveland Colored Giants floating out there in the first half of the 20th century. As mentioned above, Tilley was born in either 1879 or 1880 (depending on which document you view) and became  a multi-sport star in Portsmouth, N.H., where he and his family were some of the only African Americans in the northern New England city.

Tilley, his wife, Alice, and their kids moved to Cambridge, Mass., sometime in the 1920s and spent several decades in the land of Hahvahd, where Charlie opened a billiard parlor. In fact, both Alice (in 1956) and Charles (two years later) died in Cambridge. Below is a 1940 Census sheet listing the Tilleys in Cambridge:


But Tilley’s hometown never forgot him, and he remained a legend in Portsmouth his entire life. He returned to the city in 1924 to take part in an old-timers baseball game; the Portsmouth Herald declared that “Tilley, former P.H.S. star, and who later played with the Portsmouth team, will be seen covering the ground in the vicinity of second base in old time form.”

When Tilley died in Cambridge on Memorial Day 1958, word of his passing wound its way back to his hometown, where the paper mourned his death, including a column by sportswriter Bob Kennedy.

In 1937, though, might have been Tilley’s finest day in Portsmouth, when he came through with his Cleveland Colored Giants. First of all, it’s here that we attain one of the only clues that Tilley’s CCG’s were, in fact, the ones from Ohio. In the July 16, 1937, issue of the Portsmouth Herald, the arrival of Tilley and his team is previewed:

“Charles Tilley, a former well known Portsmouth athlete, who has been away from this city about 15 years, was here today renewing old acquaintances. Mr. Tilley now makes his headquarters in Cleveland, O., and is manager of the Cleveland Colored Giants, a professional baseball team.”

This seems like an “aha!” moment, but here’s the rub: I can’t find any official records placing Charles Tilley in Cleveland, Ohio, at any point in his life, including in the 1930s. It just seems a little strange; if a New England kid were to start a team in a burg named Cleveland, it seems more logical that it would be Cleveland, R.I., another New England town.

But who am I to question the Portsmouth Herald? Let’s just take this article on faith.

Anyway, about two weeks later, Tilley’s CCG’s did indeed make a stop in Portsmouth, a visit the hometown hero clearly relished. Per the July 27, 1937, Herald:

“Eddie Neville questioned the genial Charlie about the strength of his club and the latter merely smiled and said: ‘Do you think I’d bring a poor team with me when I am making my first appearance in my own home town?’

‘And just to prove it to you,’ continued the former PHS star, ‘if the game isn’t satisfactory, I’l take but $40 guarantee instead of our agreed $55. Meanwhile I’ll bet you’ll want us to come back before the season is through.'”

Unfortunately for Charlie, he had as much luck as another famous Charlie did when that one tried to kick the stupid football (auuuuggghhh!) — the Colored Giants lost to the local squad, the Merchants, after the home team battered three Cleveland hurlers for a whopping 20 hits in the July 31 clash.

But it still turned out to be a glorious homecoming for Tilley, who was feted by the crowd of about 1,000 fans before what the Herald called “a two and one-half hour slug-fest.” Tilley, reported the paper, “was presented with a travelling bag by Mayor Kennard E. Goldsmith in behalf of local friends.”

One final anecdote in the  Lizzie Murphy-to-Cleveland Colored Giants-to-Charles Tilley story, a tale that, if one was playing a game of “six degrees of New England baseball folk heroes,” would be pretty nifty, in my opinion. I also appears to connect Charles Tilley to an infamous team from Beantown, the Boston Black Sox.


In the first week of September 1943, the Black Sox, fronted by legendary submarine hurler Cannonball William Jackman — who gained great fame in New England and now stands as one of the most underrated and overlooked greats of black baseball history — came to Portsmouth but lost to a team of all-stars from the New Hampshire city. (Jackman is shown above, via, as an older version joshing with a youngster.)

However, about two weeks later, the Black Sox, lead by Jackman, returned to Portsmouth and turned the tables on the locals, pounding the all-stars 14-2 to gain a fair amount of revenge.

What was intriguing about this visit was a column by Kennedy in the Sept. 20, 1943, Herald that discusses Tilley as … the manager of the Black Sox and the fantastic Cannonball Jackman! According to Kennedy:

“Cannonball Will Jackman had a chance to cluck and cackle following yesterday’s game with the Sunset league All-Stars. Two weeks ago it was a different story but it was also a different Sunset league team that played for Portsmouth.

“Shortly before the game yesterday afternoon Charlie Tilley came over to check the lineups and present his array. Charlie said:

“‘You watch that team today! They won’t lose any game this afternoon.’

“Being an old Portsmouth resident as well as a great football player, we had to believe the gentleman. After the first inning, we could see old Charlie sitting over on the Black Sox bench with an ear-splitting grin. Jackman was hot and so was the rest of the team. He could rest easily and, perhaps even have a short cat nap, during the rest of the game.”

I know it was a long, twisty yarn I just spun, but I hope you enjoyed it. I certainly delighted in researching and writing it. Thanks to Leslie Heaphy for the suggestions and hints along the way.

Dick Redding’s last civilian home


Something’s been bothering me about Cannonball Dick’s death certificate — or at least the redacted version of of said document. On the certificate, his “usual residence” is listed as 99 West 138th Street in Harlem, where he supposedly lived before he was committed to the massive and notorious Pilgrim State Hospital psychiatric center on Long Island. He died there in 1948 under allegedly mysterious circumstances, and my efforts — with the aid of several others — to come up with why the great pitcher was shipped to Brentwood in Suffolk County as well as exactly died have been fruitless.

So, I thought, maybe there’s a key piece of information about the address listed on his death certificate. However, that address shows up on no other records I’ve found about him, his wife Edna or her apparent second husband, William Wortham. It comes up out of the blue. The last address I could find for Dick and Edna, for example, comes in the 1940 Census, which is an apartment building at 71 West 137th, a block away.


I did some digging and apparently that address, 99 West 138th, and an adjoining one, 100 West 138th, are now a condo/apartment complex that has changed hands several times since the mid-1960s — that’s as far back as New York City’s register of deeds online records go — including being owned by a community development corporation.

So it’s apparently a fairly large building. In fact, here’s a picture of it today. The picture makes it seem pretty standard for a rapidly redeveloping Harlem.

But in the past, 99-100 West 138th — where Dick Redding was living when he was committed — might have had a little more notorious reputation. For many years in the first half of the 20th century, the property was owned Daniel Mudrick, a Russian immigrant who ran a laundry at the location.

But that might not have been all Mudrick was running at that spot: In February 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, the 47-year-old Mudrick was arrested for running numbers, including trafficking in “policy” slips. Mudrick’s home address is listed in an article in the Amsterdam News as 45 Audubon Ave. Mudrick was busted after the arrests of two other people at the laundry shop on charges of holding policy notes. One of them was 56-year-old Thomas Elliott of 101 West 138th — right next door.

Mudrick died in 1949, about a half-year after Dick Redding passed away on Long Island.

But the address was also home to similarly murky activities and shady characters. In August 1936, 15-year-old Edna Blakely, who lived at the address, drowned in the nearby Harlem River. An investigation declared the incident a suicide, but Edna’s mother insisted that her daughter was murdered. Here’s a link to that article:

Mudrick 101

At another point, William Hanna, 55, a dock man who lived in the building, was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $450 fine for welfare graft, while in another incident, 25-year-old Wilhelmenia Green was treated at Harlem Hospital for arm lacerations after a fight with unidentified persons in front of 100 West 138th. And at least two more residents were arrested at different times for holding policy slips, but they were acquitted and/or released.

But, as is becoming standard with this research, all of this may be interesting, but it still tells us pretty much nothing about the fate of Cannonball Dick Redding. In fact, it only raises more questions: Why was he living in a possibly seedy apartment building? Was he living alone? And how did he end up going from there to Pilgrim State Hospital to die?

Unbelievably frustrating …

What’s the deal, NYPD?

I know I’m probably expecting way too much out of a massive bureaucracy with a, shall we say, less-than-stellar reputation for community and media relations, but it’s been exactly a month since I e-mailed a formal Freedom of Information request for release of all information and documents related to the murder of Harlem resident Benjamin Adair in 1925. It’s been suggested that three famous Negro League players — Oliver Marcell, Dave Brown and Frank Wickware — were at least at the scene when Adair was gunned down.

Well, I called the NYPD public relations office and was gruffly told that they have no way to track every single FOI inquiry that comes their way — it probably numbers in the hundreds, if not thousands — and that I’d be contacted when a determination has been made. The guy with whom I talked said there’s no timeline for when that decision will come down.

So I basically got the brush off. But, having dealt with police departments in my previous life as a news and investigative reporter — although none of those PDs have been near the size of NYC — I know that you have to keep on them in order to get any result/reaction at all. So on it goes …