Isabelle Baxter, baseball — and bowling — queen

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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.

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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.

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