Van Dyke House of David: Sandy Thompson in NOLA

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That’s right, back to Harry Crump’s Van Dyke Colored House of David of Sioux City, Iowa. This team is just fascinating, as are many of its players, like Yellowhorse Morris and others. It’s incredible the mix of athletes Crump pulled together for this barnstorming aggregation, from somewhat mythical vagabonds like Yellowhorse Morris — an Oaklander, by the way, a fact that intersects with the international baseball scene in Berkeley, Calif., — to obscure player/manager/catcher Guy Ousley (who’s so obscure that I can’t even pin down the correct spelling of his name, or whether that’s even his real name) to the topic of this post, James “Sandy” Thompson (below, courtesy of Seamheads), one of the many Van Dykes who at one time enjoyed “big time” careers in the Negro National League (and, for the 1932 season, the Negro Southern League) but who were now trying to elongate their fading hardball tenures as long as they possibly could.

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Sandy Thompson came to my particular attention because, I learned, that in 1935, he managed … the New Orleans Black Pelicans! Right here in NOLA!

Obviously by then, he was on the backside of his career, attempting valiantly to stretch out his time as much as he could by being a player-manager for a “minor league” teams in the South land.

But before I get to 1935, a quick rundown of his career up until then …

It appears that while Sandy Thompson had his moments — he was a slashing, contact hitter and competent outfielder — his time in the Negro “majors” was often fairly unremarkable. In fact, as you can see from his Seamheads bio, such as it is, his birthplace, death place and dates of each appear to be unknown.

I have a suspicion and lead that he began his pro/semipro career with a team in Hot Springs, Ark. In any regard, he arrived in the “big time” in 1920 with the Dayton Marcos, one of the founding teams of the original Negro National League. He then proceeded to play for the ill-fated Milwaukee Bears, the Birmingham Black Barons, and, probably most significantly, the Chicago American Giants for several years.

Thompson appears to have frequently no more than a role player, often sitting near the bottom of the bottom order, sometimes near the top, and occasionally legging out doubles and triples. But once in a while he made a splash in the national black media.

To wit … in early 1926, Cum Posey got all bent out of joint because Rube Foster allegedly plucked Thompson from the Black Barons and placed the outfielder on Foster’s own American Giants. In his regular column/PR piece for the Pittsburgh Courier in January 1926, Posey, claiming to be “writing this article as a baseball fan and not as a baseball manager …” (Whatever, Cumberland), lambasted his managerial and business rival Foster for the move:

“How is it that Foster deliberately takes [most likely Roy] Pondexter and Thompson, the two real players of the Birmingham club, and places them on [the] the American Giants without allowing such clubs as Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis to bid for the services[?] If Foster owns these clubs it is syndicate baseball and is not deserving of public support. If Foster does not own these other clubs he is using his position to take advantage of the other clubs and is not fair to these clubs. Either way you take it, it is wrong.”

Ouch. Well, regardless of the ethical implications of Foster’s moves, the jump from ‘Bama to the Windy City benefited Thompson — that season the CAGs won the blackball national championship be defeating the Atlantic City Bacharachs in the Negro World Series.

However, in 1927 Thompson hopped back to Birmingham, and while still with the Barons in July ’28, Thompson, according to the Norfolk New Journal and Guide, “was given a 10-day suspension because he failed to show up at the park for a doubleheader between the Black barons and the Detroit Stars.” Whoops.

After that, Thompson ping-ponged between Birmingham and Chicago, then reportedly played for the Cuban Stars East in 1933. That’s when, two years later, the news came down that he was managing the NOLA Black Pels. As per the American Negro Press in March 1935:

“Formerly of the Chicago American Giants when that club was enjoying much prestige, Sandy Thompson, veteran outfielder, will take over management of the new New Orleans Black Pelicans this … season, Allen Page, owner of the club announced.”

And so intersects the careers of Thompson and one of my all-time favorite (and sorely overlooked) Negro Leagues figures, New Orleans sports impresario Allen Page. From all appearances, it looks like the 1935 season was just as much about Page as it was Thompson in the Big Easy.

That’s because the 1935 Black Pels appear to have been a massive effort by Page to reinvigorate the erstwhile Black Pelicans name with new ownership, a new park (Crescent Park) and a stacked roster that included slugger and Baton Rouge native Pepper Bassett (later known as “the Rocking Chair Catcher”) and pitching ace Lefty Glover.

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Pepper Bassett

Page spent the better part of his career attempting, and at times succeeding (see this article), in making the Crescent City a Negro Leagues hotspot by, among other actions, arranging and promoting exhibition contests between the biggest Negro National and American leagues, creating the sorely underchronicled North-South All-Star game, and, in the case of the 1935 Pels, doing his best to create a “major league” caliber team based in his beloved hometown.

Page’s 1935 effort with the Black Pelicans was capped by the landing of former big-timer Sandy Thompson, a moved that had NOLA blackball fans, including the reporters at the Louisiana Weekly, all agog. Per the March 9 issue of that paper:

“Sandy Thompson, old veteran, who has had plenty of baseball experience, will take over the management of the new New Orleans Black Pelicans. Sandy has played with some of the best clubs in the country and in many sections his name is a by-word.”

That’s how the article begins. But the entire rest of the piece talks about Page’s creation of Crescent Park and his big plans for it that year.

At first, the Louisiana Weekly devoted a great deal of coverage to the ’35 Black Pels’ early-season schedule, which included home stands against higher-level African-American league and barnstorming teams, such as the Zulu Cannibal Giants (who, on their visited stayed at Allen Page’s popular hotel and were hosted by the Convention, Tourist and Entertainment Bureau of the Afro-American Chamber of Commerce, which was chaired by, or course, Allen Page), the Atlanta Black Crackers, the Detroit Giants, the Omaha Tigers (yep, of Nebraska, and they thumped the Pels, and whose most well known alumnus was Lorenzo “Piper” Davis), the big big time Nashville Elite Giants (who crushed the Black Pels, 14-3, in front of 7,000 fans at Heinemann Park in early May), the Birmingham Black Barons (for whom, Weekly writer E. Belfield Spriggins claimed, the Pels had been “revamped”), the Louisiana Stars (a deceptively strong team from tiny Donaldsonville, La., and it’s also worth noting that by that time Page had also opened his Crescent Park Beer Parlor) and the Shreveport Stars, managed by Louisiana native (and soon-to-be- star skipper for the Black Barons) Winfield Welch.

Occasionally, the local press did, albeit briefly, turn the spotlight on Sandy Thompson, as the squad fared pretty well against stiff competition — not dominating, but not being dominated, either. In late March, Louisiana Weekly sports editor Eddie Burbridge asserted that “[T]he Black Pelicans. under the able management of Sandy Thompson, served notice on all Colored baseball teams in the country when the Pels split two games with the strong Zulu Cannibal Giants …”

The paper reported Thompson’s onfield contributions decently, but, as noted, by then he was on the downside of his playing career and wasn’t a significant factor on the diamond, his role reduced to that of a capable pinch hitter and bunter.

In late April, Burbridge again stumped for the Black Pelicans in a column, this time in anticipation of a four-team doubleheader at Heinemann. Burbridge noted that the “well-known Sandy Thompson, formerly American Giant, Chicago, is the playing manager for the Pels.” But the bulk of the article was about the rest of the squad and Page himself, who Burbridge said “has gone to big expense in gathering together the stars of the South, and is giving New Orleans the best club they have had in years.”

Of course, a key part of Page’s construction of the 1935 Pels was the hiring of Thompson as manager, but the outstanding story line in New Orleans might have been that, in a way, that season was Page’s “coming out party,” the year in which he firmly established himself as an ambitious entrepreneurial and promotional force to be reckoned with, not only regionally but nationally.

Because of that, the once-big-time Sandy Thompson might have gradually become a side note to the saga. He served a purpose, one cunningly and craftily carved by Page in the latter’s rise to (overlooked) greatness. Thompson was, most likely, simply PR for page’s grander designs. However, even with that, Page was kind enough to give an aging ballplayer a decent paying gig, generously helping to extend Thompson’s career just a bit longer. If Page benefited from the presence of a former Chicago American Giant, the relationship was, in some ways, certainly symbiotic. They both got something out of it.

Anyway, by mid-June, the Black Pels had hit the road “for an indefinite period,” wrote LW columnist Cliff Thomas, who also promised:

“The Pels plan to tour the Southern State sebfore [sic] returning to New Orleans, and they are planning to have the best team [in the] south when they return here.”

After that, coverage of the 1935 New Orleans Black Pelicans completely dried up. In early fall, Thompson got a few brief mentions in the national black press, and at one point he attended an annual meeting of the Negro American League. The Black Pelicans appear to have fallen apart before the 1936 campaign, with Page opting instead to purchase the local Algiers Giants semipro club and turning them into the New Orleans Crescent Stars for that season.

And that was all for Sandy Thompson, and honestly, I can’t figure out what happened to him, making him yet another former member of the wonderfully unique Van Dyke Colored House of David who vanished into the ether of baseball history. A sad, tragic story? We’re not sure. Frankly, it depends what happened to Thompson once his hardball career finally came to an end.

But for a fleeting few months, he was the talk of the Big Easy, a last hurrah of a journeyman player who today blends in with the thousands of faces that make up Negro League history.

A few West Coast thoughts

Lately I’ve come to the realization that the Negro Leagues and blackball scene on the West Coast — or, for that matter, pretty much the entire country west of Kansas City — has in many ways been ignored by history and historians.

Well, not so much ignored, per se … But the West Coast Negro Leagues have been sorely underappreciated and poorly researched. Aside from fairly thorough studies of the California Winter League — much deservedly so, given that it was the only integrated professional circuit at the time — the West Coast just hasn’t been seen as that important.

In a way, I can’t really blame researchers for this dereliction. The left coast never had any “big time” blackball clubs, and when something like that was tried, i.e. 1946’s West Coast Negro Baseball League, it failed miserably.

So it’s understandable that historians might have come to view the West as an afterthought. But on the other hand, the same could be said about “organized baseball” on the West Coast before the arrival of the Dodgers, Giants, A’s, etc. Until those MLB teams moved, the West Coast only had minor-league and barnstorming action.

However, those subjects — organized minor-league ball, for example — have been pretty well studied. Everyone knows, for example, that Joe DiMaggio launched his pro career with the San Francisco Seals, and the history of the Pacific Coast League seems to have been researched quite extensively as time has gone on.

So, then, why has black baseball that was occurring on the West Coast been shunted aside? Why, for example, is there currently a squabble between some historians of West Coast blackball and House of David officials over whether the famed bearded barnstorming aggregation — this is the original, authentic, HoD team, although various copies of the squad did also tour the left coast — played African-American teams when it swept its way west?

Many people living today have personal, often familial, connections to black baseball on the West Coast, spurring them to find out as much as they can about, say, the Berkeley Colored League or even the short-lived WCNBL. It’s just too bad that such studies of blackball in the West are being conducted by “amateur” historians who are pursuing these passions partially out of personal connections and partially out of sheer curiosity.

It’s also too bad when these “amateur” historians might be brushed aside with the argument that they have a personal ax to grind or are obsessed with their subjects out of a subjective bias due to their connections.

But I’d argue that such are the reasons West Coast blackball needs to be explored — because so many people living today have connections to those eras, teams and leagues, and they deserve to know about their ancestors and their ancestors’ roles in the history of the great American pastime. Their personal stakes in the matter don’t reduce the validity of their research; in fact, they enhance it.

Are the official House of David museum and its connected archival repositories ignoring black-and-white, indisputable proof that their beloved, famous team did, in fact, play black teams in the West? Or are the people who are persistently approaching the HoD for information just being pesky obsessives with an aforesaid personal ax to grind?

Perhaps that is a matter of opinion, so I don’t want to weight in on one side or the other.

But what I will discuss is why I do what I do. I tend to be attracted to topics that have been overlooked or forgotten or just unknown to modern-day Negro Leagues researchers — stuff like the Berkeley International League, blackball in Billings, Mont., and the Van Dyke Colored House of David (one of the admitted knock-offs of the original HoD, but one that is nonetheless fascinating for the fact that it was an ambitious, African-American version based in, of all places, Sioux City, Iowa).

I think what we’re seeing, perhaps, is just the natural progression of historical research about the Negro Leagues. Such research efforts were pretty much non-existent until Robert Peterson’s “Only the Ball Was White,” and ever since that seminal tome, historians have furiously been playing catch-up when it comes to uncovering the story of pre-integration African-American baseball.

And where’s a natural place to start with that? The “big time” teams, leagues and players — the Josh Gibsons and Rube Fosters and Judy Johnsons, the K.C. Monarchs and Newark Eagles and Homestead Grays, the Negro National and American leagues, the East-West All-Star Classic. You start from the top and gradually work your way down to the more detailed and obscure activity — like what was happening on the West Coast, or, for that matter, much of the South, like my current stomping grounds in Louisiana.

Perhaps what we’re witnessing with West Coast blackball research is just the gradual, sometimes glacial progression of the research process. Now that so much has been discovered, documented and detailed about the big-time Negro Leagues activity, time will eventually see the progression of research interest west (and south).

At least I hope that’s the case. For now, I’m proud of my research into African-American baseball in the Pelican State, the locale of a lively and completely overlooked blackball scene. The same goes for the Negro Leagues of the West Coast. Some has to start to process, has to initiate what must happening through the evolution process within research. It might as well be we few, hardy souls who are fascinated by what remains overlooked. We like being trailblazers, and we hope we’re doing a service to the research process.

So I guess I issue a call to all Negro Leagues and African-American baseball historians, both professional and amateur, to join us in our quest. We would welcome the help, because the more people we have combing through databases and box scores, the better. It has to be a group effort, and if there’s one thing the Negro Leagues community has always proudly been is a close-knit, group effort to right the countless injustices that occurred in this country.

Come join us. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

A whole world opens up …

A few months ago I wrote this blog post about the Berkeley International League, baseball in the Bay Area and a promoter named Byron “Speed” Reilly, topics I tripped across while looking into the West Coast Negro Baseball League (on which I did this article and this one) as well as some Negro League players who competed in the historic, integrated California Winter League.

Then I encountered (I can’t remember how this one happened) a team called the Van Dyke Colored House of David, a fleeting comet of a semipro black team based in, of all places, Sioux City, Iowa, and patterned after the famed barnstorming religious team, the House of David, based in Benton Harbor, Mich. The Van Dykes’ top pitcher for a few months was Yellowhorse Morris, a murky but phenomenal hurler from … the Bay Area! I then discovered that when they toured the West Coast, the Van Dykes played the Athens Colored Elks, one of the squads in the Berkeley International League and that loop’s forerunner, the Berkeley Colored League.

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Van Dyke Colored House of David

It was then that I first got a major inkling, almost an inherent researcher/journalist instinct, that so much of ethnic baseball history was and is interconnected, and the Bay Area hardball scene was perhaps the greatest example of that — of how different ethnicities and a slew of fascinating, colorful characters crossed paths.

I’ve had that gut feeling confirmed over the last 24 hours, when I came in contact with Ronald Auther, an African-American blogger, writer and researcher based in Michigan whose grandfather and other elder relatives played for the Athens Elks, the Berkeley Grays, the Berkeley Pelicans and a bunch of other baseball squads at a time when blacks and whites simply didn’t maintain sports on the same rosters, even in a traditionally “progressive” region like the Bay Area.

Ron posted a comment to my “Speed League” blog post (link in the first paragraph of this post) last night under a Japanese pseudonym, and, after e-mailing him several times last night and today, I spoke to him tonight about the wealth of information he’s turned up about that Bay scene. In fact, I could very well be correct when I say that Ron is probably the leading expert on the subject. (For some of his writings, check out his blog here. I’ll also include the edited text of the comment he made to “The Speed League” post at the end of this one.)

During our discussion, Ron clued me in to so much information and intriguing aspects about his research on Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland and the rich existence of the American pastime there that right now I’m trying not to let my brain explode.

“The Berkeley International League, the Oakland jazz scene, the Pullman porters clubs — it’s all interconnected,” Ron said, “and it wasn’t happening anywhere else.”

In short, Ron confirmed that it is, indeed, all connected in one way or another, that minority baseball history — and, truly, all of the sport’s heritage — blends together like a multicolored melange so much in the first half of the 20th century, all despite the best (or worst?) efforts of “organized baseball’s” big wigs.

There’s no way I can encapsulate everything Ron told me or every lead he gave me for various paths of research to follow in one blog post, so here I’ll just use a few bulleted paragraphs to touch on some of the best stuff:

• It was indeed Byron “Speed” Reilly who kind of oversaw and nurtured so much that went on in the Bay Area between the 1920s-40s. The guy, Ron said, had his fingers in a lot of pies — one day writing a correspondent article for the national black wire services, the next day presiding over an inter-ethnic baseball game, and the next day putting together a Count Basie concert at a local ballroom. Reilly was a true Renaissance man who flourished near the Bay.

“This was all Byron ‘Speed’ Reilly’s handiwork,” Ron told me. “He was in all of it. That’s who he was, and that’s what he did. He was a trip. He wasn’t just an organizer, a journalist, a promoter — he was everything.

• It was San Pablo Park, the city of Berkeley’s oldest recreational area (the land was bought in 1907) that the Bay Area’s ethnic minorities — Japanese, Chinese, Jewish, African-American — came together to play ball, because it was virtually the only ball field open to all of them.

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And San Pablo wasn’t vibrant just in the first few decades of the century — every succeeding generation of Bay Area ballplayers competed there, including Ron Auther’s relatives and white Major Leaguers, at one time or another.

“Baseball (in the Bay Area) was San Pablo Park,” Ron said. “That’s what it was. They basically all played there.”

• It was largely from the teams of the longstanding Berkeley Colored League that the players for the 1946 Oakland Larks of the short-lived West Coast Negro Baseball League were plucked. “The Berkeley Colored Baseball League morphed into (the) Oakland (Larks),” Ron said. “And Speed Reilly was making this whole thing happen.”

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Image courtesy of Ron Auther

• The Berkeley Colored League, which ran for many years in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and its teams were truly a source of pride of African-Americans not just in the Bay Area, but up and down the West Coast, kind of like a miniature version of the black players and teams of the larger and more well known California Winter League.

It was playing in these leagues and for these teams that the white baseball hotshots from the East Coast found themselves humbled on countless occasions by African-American and other ethnic minority players and squads. Sometimes the beat downs were so embarrassing to the white players that the mainstream press conveniently omitted coverage of such contests.

“The East Coast used to come to the West Coast and get beat up pretty badly by the Negro League teams. The white teams played the black teams to see who was best, and then nobody talked about it,” Ron said slyly.

• It wasn’t uncommon for the different ethnicities to mix on the same rosters in the Bay Area. One example was Asian-American pitcher Albert Bowen, who, as the clipping below shows, took the mound for the otherwise all-black Berkeley Pelicans when he was suiting up for the Wa Sung Asian team, which was a member of the Berkeley International League and quite a local power in its own right.

3rd Annual State Championship  Tournament Baseball Hit 1935 Page 15

Image courtesy of Ron Auther

Unfortunately, Ron said, “the Asian and Jewish communities were treated just as badly as the African-American community” but, he added, “at least they had more places to play ball.” He cited the outrageous deportation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II that crippled the Japanese baseball teams in the region.

• National barnstorming teams like the Van Dyke House of David — not to mention the original House of David — always made sure to make stops in the Bay Area to play the region’s best black teams.

“The Elks and the Larks played them all,” Ron said. “When these guys rolled into town, they had standard arrangements to play (the African-American squads).”

• Finally, to end on a little personal note by Ron … the far-flung, both geographically and culturally (sports to music, journalism to promotion), national black community brought together by Speed Reilly was so interconnected in the region because, even though the Bay has been historically more progressive than, say, the deep South, famous African Americans like Cab Calloway were forced to find lodging, dining and other hospitalities among the families on the “black side” of town. (Sacramento Street sort of served as a divider between the “right side and the wrong side of the tracks.”)

In fact, Ron remembers going to house parties and barbecues at his elders’ homes that were attended by music and sports stars. The people hosting the shindigs were extremely proud of their barbecuing skills, which they passed down to successive generations, including Ron himself.

“I’m considering writing something just about my barbecuing abilities,” he said with a small laugh.

Text of Ron Auther’s comment on my “Speed League” post:

Not at all. “Speed” Reilly was based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was a promoter, newspaper journalist, sports editor for multiple newspapers, among many other things. There’s no mistaking that. Byron was black. He was very light-skinned.

The BIL (Berkeley International League) is an offshoot of the Berkeley Colored League. People just wanted to play ball at San Pablo Park and have their skills recognized, then party afterwards. Again, Speed made it all happen — and more. He even threw events at Sweets Ballroom and Rollerland.

He was connected with the YMCA athletes and the Berkeley Sunsets Basketball team. That man had more irons in the fire than any man I’ve ever researched as a writer. My grandfather played for the Athens Colored Elks aka the Athens Colored Elites of Oakland aka the Oakland Black Giants.

His brothers played for the Berkeley Grays, The Pullman All Stars, etc. When they didn’t play on the same team, they played against each other. They played with everyone from Jim Lane, Hilary “Bullet” Meaddows, etc. — moving on to eventually play for the Oakland Larks. But “Speed” — he was a wheeler dealer, a man of action who made things happen.

Before Dick Wallace, there was … Felix

I’m steadfastly working on a story for (hopeful) publication about the 1909 St. Paul Colored Gophers, and along the way I’ve become a little intrigued by the team’s captain, a speedy little second baseman named Felix Wallace.

Most Negro League fans, though, know him as Dick Wallace, who, after leaving the Gophers following their possibly mythical 1909 “world colored championship” campaign, when on to the Leland Giants before hopping to the St. Louis Giants, where he achieved his greatest fame.

But by the time he reached his zenith at the Gateway to the West, he was going by the appellation of Dick Wallace, and his hardball star zoomed up from there.

But in 1909, when he perhaps got his first real taste of fame, success and big-time ball with the Gophers, he was still Felix. One newspaper ran a photo of him bending down to scoop up a ball, with the text below reading, “FELIX WALLACE, Second Baseman, ‘Colored Gophers,’ One of the Fastest Infielders in the Country.”

Here’s a little bit of his story …

Richard Felix Wallace was born, according to his WWI draft registration card, on July 22, 1882. The card lists his nearest relative as Sarah Wallace, his mother, with an address in Owensboro, Ky.

Owensboro, in fact, was where Richard Felix was born and, it appears, considered his lifelong home, even when he was criss-crossing the country during his baseball career. It was in that Daviess County city that Sarah, a widow, raised her family as a single mother.

The 1900 federal Census depicts 39-nine-year-old Sarah presiding over a home that included her eldest daughter, 25-year-old Lettie; son Felix (he’s listed by that name), 18; and a 14-year-old nephew named Fred (I can’t make out the last name). Sarah is listed as washwoman, and Lettie, Felix and Fred are all tobacco steamers. The record states Sarah’s father was born in Tennessee, while her mother was birthed in Kentucky. Felix and Lettie had both parents born in Kentucky.

The 1910 Census lists Sarah Wallace still in Owensboro, and still a washer woman, living by herself as a 48-year-old widow. This time, though, the birthplace of both her parents are stated as “unknown.” Given that Sarah was born in the South shortly before or around the start of the Civil War, she could very well have been born a slave.

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I couldn’t find any official record of the identity of Felix (and Lettie’s) father, including a marriage license or anything like that, which isn’t surprising if Sarah was allegedly widowed at such a relatively young age.

Or was she? Enter a little murkiness. While I couldn’t immediately discover any date of death for Sarah Wallace, she is listed as living in Owensboro in numerous city directories — each time listed as a washwoman, laundress or some variation thereof — between, with possible variation on each end — between 1891 an 1943.

But here’s the catch — in some of those directory listings, she has a … husband! The guy’s name is Thomas Wallace. So was she widowed or wasn’t she? And this dude couldn’t be a second husband who coincidentally also had a surname of Wallace. (Well, it’s possible, I suppose, if it was her original husband’s brother or other relative, and there is the slim chance that it’s a completely unrelated Thomas Wallace. But whatever.)

Anyway, back to Felix Wallace … The 1910 Census places the 27-year-old Felix in — you guessed it — Owensboro, with his wife Georgia, 27, and their daughter, Daisy, who’s 1. His occupation is, again, tobacco steamer, and Georgia is listed as having no occupation. All three members of the household were born in Kentucky, as were all their parents.

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Hold on a minute … wasn’t Felix a professional baseball player in St. Paul, Minnesota by 1909? Then how and why is he listed in the 1910 Census as being a humble tobacco factory worker in Owensboro, Ky.?

Because, I think, he just really loved his hometown. He was born in a small town, he could breathe in a big town, he was taught to fear Jesus in a small town, he’s got nothing against the big town … Wait, sorry, Mellencamp flashback there. Apologies. But what do you want? I lived in Indiana for eight years.

Buuuuuuut, I digress yet again. Felix Wallace seems to just have been a true homeboy. To wit: He’s listed in the 1901, 1903 and 1907 Owensboro city directories, either as a steamer or a “laborer.” Georgia, his wife, is listed with him in the 1907 version.

Yet here’s another buuuuuuuuuut … in 1909, Felix Wallace is listed in — drum roll — the St. Paul city directory! With his occupation as … “ball player”!

And so, despite his always calling Owensboro home, begins the Felix Wallace story in St. Paul with the classic Colored Gophers.

In the next installment of the Richard Felix “Dick” Wallace story, we’ll look at how little Felix ended up captaining the Gophers in 1909, and how he contributed mightily to their remarkable success.

After that, we’ll examine his premature death at age 42 in 1925 in … yep, Owensboro, Ky.

A Negro Leaguer in my old stomping grounds

My good friend (with whom I do a horrible job of keeping in touch, for which I deeply apologize) Amanda Zuicens Williams at the Indiana University Alumni Magazine tipped me off to a recent story in the Bloomington Herald-Times (our old nemesis from our Indiana daily Student days) about Negro League great and apparent Bloomington resident George Shively, who seems to be buried in B’town in an unmarked grave.

Here’s a link to the story, but apparently the H-T, ever the yutzes, has a pay wall to just about all its stories, so I don’t think you can read the article via the link, but I’ve pasted the text of the story below anyway:

Negro League star buried in unmarked Bloomington grave

By Andy Graham 812-331-4215 | agraham@heraldt.com 812-331-4215 | agraham@heraldt.com | 1 comment

What if a baseball player the caliber of Lou Brock came from Bloomington? Would that merit an honorific statue?

When he passed away, what sort of ceremony would that prompt?

The earthly remains of George Shively have lain in an unmarked Rose Hill Cemetery grave for over a half-century now, unceremoniously.

That is about to change.
An effort to properly memorialize and salute Shively – a two-time MVP and seven-time All-Star in the Negro leagues – is afoot. And it will receive open-to-the-public pronouncement at 6 p.m. Thursday when distinguished Negro Leagues expert and author Phil Dixon gives a free talk at the Monroe County History Center.

That venue is appropriate in more than one respect. The center is at Sixth and Washington, on the site once occupied by “The Colored School” Shively attended while a Bloomington youth in the early 20th Century.

Dixon is currently touring 90 towns that hosted games featuring the legendary Kansas City Monarchs (the longest-running Negro Leagues franchise, with Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson among its Hall of Famers) in honor of the Monarchs’ 90th anniversary. While he is unsure if they ever played in Bloomington, Dixon said he was privileged to stop by and speak about Shively.

“I’m happy to bring attention to these ballplayers, to the many outstanding athletes who are not in their respective state hall of fames or haven’t received due recognition,” Dixon said. “In this particular case, also, it’s to help raise money for a monument at the grave site. I like those kinds of projects.

“I’m so excited to help get a local hero recognition.”

Just how heroic or even local Shively was, athletically, wasn’t immediately clear to former Herald-Times sports editor Bob Hammel, whose initial interest in the subject was spurred by a seemingly extraneous comment during an interview.

Hammel, while writing a brief bio about 2011 Monroe County Sports Hall of Fame inaugural class inductee Cornelius Cook, came across notes from a conversation years earlier in which the late Cook had offered an off-hand addendum: “I only pitched against George Shively once.”

Shively’s name was new to Hammel at the time. Upon further reflection, he figured that hanging-thread of a sentence had to signify something, that there was a reason the former Bloomington High School multi-sport star and Negro Leagues pitcher had said it.
So Hammel Googled George Shively and …
Lo and behold.

BLOOMINGTONIAN

Even the initial search was captivating enough. It revealed Shively was born Jan. 3, 1893, in Lebanon, Ky., and died June 7, 1962, in Bloomington at age 69. He was buried at Rose Hill. His pro baseball career was listed as starting with the 1910 West Baden Sprudels and concluding with the 1924 Washington Potomacs.

Hammel initially thought Shively came north for the chance to play for the Sprudels, a team of African-Americans brought in primarily as hotel porters who could provide high-grade baseball entertainment — mainly in a 150-game schedule against archrival French Lick but also in exhibitions against white pro teams, including some major leaguers.

Dixon noted that most of the nation’s “water towns,” those harboring resorts and spas utilizing local mineral springs, also boasted excellent baseball scenes and teams in those years. Major League clubs such as the Pirates, Cardinals and Orioles (later incarnated into the Browns) used French Lick for their spring training early in the century, with the White Sox and Cubs following suit during World War II.

“I thought George had come up from Kentucky to play baseball in West Baden and lived here in the off-season,” Hammel said earlier this week. “But then the 1900 Census showed he and his father, Joseph, were living in Bloomington then, when George would have been 6 or 7 years old. They were also here in 1910, so he apparently lived here through that period.

“So that means he was a Bloomington kid, that he grew up here as a child. I always had the thought he was in range for our (Monroe County) Hall of Fame, and now it’s become a wonderful story to investigate. It has paid off in a motherlode.”

Which includes details of a baseball career that is, very likely, Monroe County’s all-time greatest.
“To my knowledge, it is,” Hammel said. “Obviously, there were great players I was never cognizant of, but, from what I can see, he’s the best baseball player ever to come out of Monroe County.”

Shively an All-Star

It is always difficult to compare players between eras. But a closely corresponding current player to Shively is perhaps Jacoby Ellsbury, the swift, stylish, left-handed leadoff man and outfielder recently shifted from the Red Sox to the Yankees. A premium player. An All-Star.

Shively, the lefty leadoff man, came along with manager C.I. Taylor and many of the other Sprudels to play for the Indianapolis ABCs (named after the club’s original sponsor, the American Brewing Company) in 1914. Shively batting a cumulative .327 for the club through 1923 and scored almost a run per game.

That — scoring runs, the object of the game — prompts comparison with the Majors’ all-time greats. Shively’s official career statistics show in a career games played/runs-scored ratio he was at 86.96 percent. Of all the stars inducted into the Cooperstown Hall of Fame since 1900, only one, Lou Gehrig at 87.35, tops Shively’s ratio. Babe Ruth (86.86), Ty Cobb (74.03), Mickey Mantle (69.80), Willie Mays (68.92) and Henry Aaron (65.92) are among those who couldn’t match it. Shively-style speedsters Brock (61.54), Robinson (68.52) and Rickey Henderson (74.49) also fall shy.

Shively’s official numbers are probably low. The Seamheads.com Negro Leagues Database, a primary source for those statistics, has Shively with a .305 career batting average but that is based upon incomplete data. “The Seamheads site just tried to take the games in which it felt was ‘elite’ teams were playing other ‘elite’ teams,” Dixon said. “They list 177 at-bats for Shively in 1918, and he probably had over twice that many.

“Exhibition games were important for maintenance of the leagues, to raise money, and teams toured to play local teams. Teams barnstormed. Every town had a team. It was the glory age of town ball. Shively undoubtedly had much greater numbers than Seamheads would suggest.”

Shively’s Bloomington Herald-Telephone obituary lists a .408 batting average for the entire 1918 season. Seamheads has him at .338.

Numbers aside, Shively was clearly considered a quality player by his peers and competitors.
“I don’t think there is any question about his speed,” Hammel said. “He played center for a great outfield. C.I. Taylor compared his ABCs outfield of Oscar Charleston, George Shively and James Jefferies to Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper – and said he’d take his first.”

Author Paul Debono, in his book “The Indianapolis ABCs,” wrote: “Charleston’s comparison to Cobb has been made countless times. Shively and Jefferies were two excellent players whose exploits on the diamond have been obscured not only because they played in the Negro leagues, but also because they spent many years is the smaller market of Indianapolis.”

Charleston was one of the first Negro League players selected for induction in Cooperstown by a special committee in 1971 and others followed piecemeal over the years before a 2005 select committee paved the way for the induction of 17 Negro league and pre-Negro league players and participants, drawn from a list of 39 that itself was pared from a list of 94 candidates. Shively was one of the candidates considered for induction.

“They brought in Negro league players who hadn’t had the chance to play in the Majors, or didn’t qualify through their Major League play, like Monte Irvin (who was already 30 when he broke in with the New York Giants in 1949, and who is still living at age 100 in Houston,)” Hammel said. “Shively was on the consideration list. That means, what, he was one of the top 100 Negro league players ever?

“He was a two-time league MVP (1914 and 1917) and a seven-time All-Star with the ABCs. ‘Cool Papa’ Bell was never MVP of the Negro leagues.”

Rabbit gone to ground

Shively’s nickname was “Rabbit,” and he was reputedly almost as fast as the rabbits Bloomington-area farmers gave him permission to hunt on their property.

“Given the times, especially, that tells me he was well-liked,” Hammel said.

Shively married but apparently had no children, though obituary information indicates he had siblings, with nieces and nephews listed as survivors. His wife is buried beside him, one of 10 people listed in adjacent unmarked Rose Hill plots.

An ad hoc group has formed with an immediate goal of setting a proper marker up for Shively, with a longer-term goal of getting markers for all 10 graves. Arts administrator Sally Gaskill, a baseball buff who sings with the Voces Novae choir of Bloomington, pointed out where Shively is buried when the choir sang recently at Rose Hill. The choir then broke into a spontaneous version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and pooled $250 together to launch the drive to fund Shively’s marker. Estimates are that will take around $1,000 to do the job well. Hammel hopes more markers will follow, for Mrs. Shively and the eight others.

The current situation reminds me somewhat of the cemetery in which my own family’s plot, on the maternal side, is located in Eddyville, Ky. The cemetery there is ancient, with graves dating to the pre-Revolutionary War era, but its grounds are well-kept and manicured. Except for those where crumbling tombstones trail off into dense woods. I once asked a cousin about that. “Those are the slave graves,” he said, his head lowered a bit. “We’d love to be able to contact families and relatives, but we have no records. We just don’t know who they are, to be able to do them justice, to have their plots attended to.”

We know who George Shively is, now.

And his father was probably enslaved.

“A white family named Shively owned the tobacco farm on which George was born,” Hammel said. “My guess is George was the son of a slave. His father would have been in his teens when the Civil War ended in 1865. The Emancipation Proclamation came in 1863, but didn’t apply to Kentucky (which never seceded). So Joseph, the father, was almost certainly working on the farm and wouldn’t have been freed till the war’s end.

“There are a lot of unmarked graves, stemming from slavery and beyond, and I’d really like this project to identify all 10. What is there now just makes you shake your head — dignity denied to people. I don’t think we have to accept that. And I think everything we can now do from here on should be in George Shively’s name. ‘The George Shively Project.’ “

George Shively talk
WHEN: 6 p.m., Thursday
WHERE: Monroe County History Center, 6th and Washington
ADMISSION: Free

Malloy links

Here are some links to coverage of the Malloy conference last week, with lots of great pics. The first link is to the Malloy Facebook page, while the other is the SABR Malloy site.

There appears to have been minimal, if any coverage, of the conference in the Detroit press, which is quite typical. I did write a short preview of the conference for Hour Detroit magazine.

Also, at least a single TV station covered the dedication of the historical marker at the remnants of Hamtramck Stadium here.

Apologies for the delay

I’m very sorry for not posting more about the Malloy conference as it happened, and for not writing since then. I was supposed to make a presentation at the conference Saturday on William Binga and his family tree in Detroit, but my disability/illness got the better of me and I was unable to give my talk. I was extremely disappointed and very badly affected by it all, so I needed a couple days to get back into the swing of things.

Aaaaaaannnnnd … now I’ve come down with a cold type of deal — sore throat, foggy head, achy — thanks to a freezing McDonald’s that must have had the AC stuck on the “meat locker” setting. Plus I’m working on a really long, challenging story in which I’m elbow-deep in St. Paul Colored Gophers.

So I’m not sure how much in-depth, research-based posting I’ll be able to do, but what I will be doing is posting a lot of links to other cool stuff I’m coming across. I’ll hopefully get back into the full swing of things this weekend.

For now, here’s a shot from the second players’ panel held Saturday at the Malloy conference in Detroit. The scheduled guest, Robert Paige (Satchel’s son) couldn’t make it because of family emergencies, but the organizers of the conference did a great job of improvising for the time slot.

They had Minnie Forbes, the last surviving female owner of a big-time Negro League team — she owned the Detroit Stars when her uncle, Ted Raspberry, had to divest his interest in the team for a season — herself moderated an impromptu second players’ panel with Pedro Sierra and Ernie Nimmons. Mr. Nimmons is a very quiet, unassuming man, while Mr. Sierra is quite the storyteller. It doesn’t take much to get him spinning fascinating tales about his playing days.

photo

Probably the most interesting nugget that came out of the second panel was when an audience member asked if the players minded that their team, the Stars, was owned by a woman. Pedro quite matter-of-factly by humorously said that at the time (I think this was 1958, during the death throes of the Negro American League) the players didn’t even know Ms. Forbes was the owner. They thought she was just the secretary, because she was the one who signed and handed out their paychecks, and as long as they got paid, the players didn’t ask any questions.

Hey, Negro League baseball was a rough-and-tumble business, and by the late 1950s many teams were having trouble meeting payroll. So the Stars probably felt lucky that they more or less got paid on time. It also shows how good an owner and manager Mrs. Forbes was that she did a better job of running her team than many of her male peers ran theirs.

Plus, even at her age, Ms. Forbes is still a stone-cold fox. Beautiful woman. If I wasn’t involved, I might have asked her out. 🙂