Lizzie leads to Charlie leads to … the other famous Cannonball

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I don’t really remember how I tripped over the story of Lizzie “Spike” Murphy (above, via www.exploratorum.edu), 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:

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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.

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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 boston.com, 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.

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3 thoughts on “Lizzie leads to Charlie leads to … the other famous Cannonball

  1. Hi Ryan. Perhaps you should try to contact Stephanie Liscio she wrote a book called – Integrating Cleveland Baseball about Negro Baseball in Cleveland. I have not read the book yet but look forward to it – my interest is in the Tate Stars.

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    • Hi James. I totally forgot about Stephanie, very good point. As soon as I read your comment I e-mailed her, so hopefully I’ll hear back soon and have a chance to talk with her about women baseball players in Cleveland, including Lizzie Murphy and Isabelle Baxter. The Tate Stars also present a rich opportunity for exploration.

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  2. Pingback: Isabelle Baxter, baseball — and bowling — queen | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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