Making some Cannonball calls

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This week I’ve been making a bunch of calls and filling out forms to find out what happened to Cannonball Dick Redding in Pilgrim State Hospital on Halloween 1948. With assists from fellow SABR member Jim Overmyer and from Elyse Hill of the Atlanta Metro chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and by trying certain sources yet again, here’s what I’ve tried to do.

First, I keep trying to call the Leroy Butler Funeral Home in Harlem, which is the parlor that held funeral services, etc., for Cannonball after he died. And, has happened for seemingly dozens of times now, the phone just rings and no one answers. Arrgh!

I also annoyingly called, once again, the records offices of Pilgrim State Hospital to again follow up on my request to have Dick’s records released. The official with whom I usually speak was, as always, very courteous, friendly and apologetic when he told me the same thing he’s told me the last three times I’ve called — it’s still being processed in Albany. And Albany, he noted yet again, is a tangled bureaucracy that really doesn’t have a clear process for handling such requests.

In fact, he told me this time that my request is something he’s never seen before during his tenure at Pilgrim — a non-relative making such an application. He added that he and other state officials hopefully won’t make me go through too many hoops (a nice thought, but unlikely), especially because the records I’m looking for actually might not exist anymore! “We may have the stuff, we may not have the stuff,” he said frankly. “Frankly, this is the first time we’ve even had something like this.” So I guess I can, well, feel flattered that I’m treading new ground, but that doesn’t change the fact that this bureaucratic Keystone Cops routine is getting old.

(Jim Overmyer gave me a personal example of how intractable and stubborn the NYS Office of Mental Health can be … When he tried to obtaining information about a hospital baseball team — one that didn’t include any patients whatsoever, just employees and townsfolk — he got stonewalled nearly to death.)

He then suggested I look into obtaining death records from the Islip Town Clerk’s office, which, he said, would have such documents because Pilgrim hospital is in Islip. “If he died at Pilgrim,” the official said, “that’s where the records would be.” So I downloaded and filled out an application for the Islip avenue, but the instructions warned that only immediate family or people with a documented, officially approved right to the records will be successful. I’m guessing that saying I’m a journalist and baseball researcher won’t do the trick. In fact, when I called the clerk’s office, the woman with whom I spoke was extremely curt and blunt, saying that staffers there aren’t even allowed to talk about the process itself over the phone. Welcome to Long Island, folks.

I then followed up on some advice given to me by Elyse Hill at the Atlanta AAHGS chapter. Noting that the funeral services of Cannonball’s mother, Laura Redding, in 1934 were handled by Cox Brothers funeral home in Atlanta, she said the parlor is still in business. Why not give them a call, she suggested?

(As it turns out, Cox Brothers, located on Auburn Avenue, is the city’s oldest black-owned funeral home. Below is a picture from thegrio.com of the business’ owner, Carlton Webb, in his office.)

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So I called Cox Brothers, and I got some pretty good information. The gentleman with whom I spoke at Cox was effusively, ebulliently helpful even though I could almost hear his jaw drop when I asked if they had records from a funeral in 1934. I was hoping that, if Cox had such records, it might indicate a next of kin for Mrs. Redding, which could be another avenue for me to explore.

After about 15 minutes of searching the home’s files, he called me back and said, yep, they did still have those records, even though they were 80 years old. A lot of the information he subsequently gave me — Laura’s parents’ (and Cannonball’s grandparents’) names, her address in the city, that she was a house domestic, etc. — I already knew.

But he told me that she died on Aug. 24, 1934, and was buried six days later in Chestnut Hill Cemetery. The cause of death? Acute nephritis, more commonly known as inflammation of the kidneys. She was 52 years old, he said. He also said that, interestingly enough, the entire funeral service process for Laura Redding cost a whopping $63, which, even 80 years ago, was peanuts. “It was a cheap funeral,” he said.

He also lamented the fact that, as was apparently the case with Laura Redding, she died without many people even caring, including, seemingly and sadly, her famous baseball-playing son.Such situations, he said, lead to forgotten legacies and clouded history. “When you’re dead and gone, that’s it,” he said. “People don’t know nothing.”

So, what about the big question: Laura Redding’s next of kin? When we talked about that, the conversation got a little unclear. He said the reported informant/relative was one Minnie Tate, which quickly piqued my interest. Laura’s daughter (and Dick’s sister), was Minnie Redding, who, prevailing knowledge has said, had no offspring or spouse. But with a different last name, was she perhaps married — and, perhaps perhaps, did she have children?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much record online at all of a Minnie Tate in Atlanta, beyond a couple token city directory listings in the 1930s. (Minnie Redding died in January 1970, according to Social Security records.)

So, while I did learn a lot of fascinating stuff about the death of Dick Redding’s mother — a bargain-basement funeral, bad kidneys, etc. — my ultimate goal seems to have been left unfulfilled — I didn’t uncover any new leads on a living relative of Cannonball who could tell me how and why he died in a New York insane asylum.

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