First off, I don’t know how New Orleans native Morris “Tar Rock” Arthur got his nickname.
But how can your interest not be piqued just by the name Tar Rock?
Although Arthur appears to have briefly scuttled around the upper echelons of the top-level Negro Leagues, including the Birmingham Black Barons and the Harlem Globetrotters, for several years, his name remains somewhat of a mystery, even in his hometown.
Yesterday I asked one of his contemporaries and fellow NOLA product Herb Simpson if he knew Tar Rock or remembered much about him.
“I knew him,” Herb told me, “but not very well.”
Arthur was a big enough name, though, to merit a short article, accompanied by a photo, in the New Orleans Times-Picayune when he died in November 1978. The Nov. 7 article claimed Arthur was “a former player in the Negro National Baseball League” who “began his playing career as a catcher with the Black Dots, a local semi-pro team in the late 1930s. Highly touted for his catching ability, he quickly joined the Negro professional circuit and played with such teams as the Harlem Globetrotters, the Birmingham Barons and the Cleveland Buckeyes.”
The article added, “He was regarded as one of the better catchers around during his playing days in the Negro National League.”
But I couldn’t find much about him playing with either the Black Barons or the Globetrotters.
I also did some research locally about this team called the Black Dots. It looks like their only year of existence was 1938, which does match up with what was stated in Arthur’s obituary. That year, the Louisiana Weekly, in its baseball directly, lists the Dots as owned by Armand Lescne, with a mailing address as 2410 Havana Street in New Orleans.
The Dots had pitchers named Thornhill, Degruy, Dedeaux and Ducet — several Creole names — and they played teams like the Broadway Sports, the New Orleans White Sox, the Madisonville (La.) Rebels and the (presumably New Orleans) Lumberjacks. Out of those, the biggest and best team was probably the White Sox, led by “Big Catch” Carter.
The 1938 coverage of the Black Dots in the Louisiana Weekly doesn’t make much reference to Morris Arthur; he’s listed as a batting star in 13-3 win over the White Sox in mid-April, but at no point is he mentioned as a catcher for the team.
After his active playing career, Arthur became involved with the New Orleans Old Timers Baseball Club, frequently playing in the organizations annual Father’s Day exhibition. However, instead of taking a post behind the plate, he’s listed in the old timers lineups as a second baseman.
Morris Arthur Sr.’s WWI draft registration
But what’s most fascinating to me is Tar Rock’s personal life and family background. Morris Arthur Jr. was born on June 9, 1918, to Morris Arthur Sr. and the former Mary Louise Perera. Morris Sr. was born in either 1896 (as per his WWI draft card) or 1897 (according of Louisiana birth records) to Louis Arthur and Julia Coleman.
Morris Jr.’s mother, however, wasn’t a Louisiana native. In fact, she was from Havana, Cuba, born Maria Luisa Perera in about 1898, meaning she Anglicized her name upon coming to the States. She appears to have immigrated to the U.S., with several other members of her family, in June 1914. Interestingly, according to notes on a ship manifest of “alien passengers for the United States,” her family was initially quarantined for “medical examination” upon arriving Stateside.
Ship manifest listing Tar Rock Arthur’s mother
In federal Census records, however, Mary/Maria is listed as being born in Louisiana, which was probably yet another way of covering up her ancestry. But those same records state that Mary’s father was born in the colony of British Guiana, while her mother is listed as a Louisiana native, which is also very unlikely.
In most of the Census records in which she’s included, Mary was “black,” which is certainly historically accurate; the European colonial powers that ruled both Cuba and Guiana at various times imported slaves from Africa for work on sugarcane plantations, which were the heart of both colonies’ economies.
Anyway, Morris Sr. and Mary Louise were married in New Orleans on Nov. 4, 1916. Roughly two years later, the couple had their first child, Morris Jr., the future “Tar Rock” Arthur. However, the couple soon split; in the 1930 Census, Mary is listed as a single, divorced mother of four children, including Morris Jr. Her occupation is stated as seamstress.
But Mary managed to move on with her life, marrying again to Mr. Henry Lacour and having addition children with him (who would have been Morris Jr.’s half-siblings). According to state death records, Marie L. Lacour died on April 9, 1991. Interestingly, that same record states that she was born in 1905, which differs radically from earlier documents.
Morris Arthur Sr., seems to have remained single the rest of his life. As far as how he made ends meet, on his WWI draft card his occupation is listed as “chauffeur,” but in various subsequent New Orleans city directories, he’s simply called a “cleaner.” Morris Arthur Sr. died in August 1940, at the age of roughly 43 years old.
Meanwhile, Morris “Tar Rock” Arthur went on to live a busy, busy life. He married the former Lucille Mornay, even living with her parents and siblings as of the 1940 Census. That document states that Morris was a “house boy” for a “hotel company.” The fact that a 22-year-old man is listed as “boy” is reflective of the racism that African-Americans faced for decades in the Jim Crow South. Lucille’s parents, Emile and Louise, were a bread baker and a cook, respectively. Here’s that page from the 1940 Census:
One reason that Tar Rock Arthur doesn’t show up much in the black media’s baseball coverage could be that during the 1940s, he served a total of nearly five years in the military — from June 1941 through September 1945, then again from November 1946 to April 1947.
After Arthur left the military, he and Lucille lived next door to Lucille’s parents for much of their lives. The odd thing, though, is that in various New Orleans city directories from 1947 to 1960, Arthur’s occupation is never listed the same way twice — the directories alternately call him a carrier, an attendant, a driver, a packer and even a student (in 1949).
As stated near the beginning of this post, Morris “Tar Rock” Arthur died on Nov. 5, 1978. his wife, Lucille, passed away Dec. 8, 1989. They were survived by a son, Kenneth, and several grandchildren.
As a postlude, it’s definitely worth noting that Tar Rock was also a gridiron star, playing for teams in New Orleans’ Negro Independent Football League during the 1930s.