(Photo courtesy of Craig Lewis)
One of the facets of African-American baseball history that’s always fascinated me is how that there were so many streams and centers of blackball activity sprouting up, thriving and traveling across the country, and how so many of those seemingly individual strands of the American pastime actually intertwined and co-mingled.
Exactly that happened on Sept. 9, 1934 — nearly 80 years ago — when the Iowa-based Van Dyke Colored House of David launched their first West Coast swing when they played the Athens Elks of the Berkeley Colored League in San Francisco. Wrote the American Negro Press in late July 1934:
“The Van Dyke Colored House of David baseball team will make their debut in this section on September 9, when they meet Byron (Speed) Reiley’s [sic] Athen Elks Stars of the Colored Berkeley League.
“The game is scheduled for the Coast League Park in Oakland and as it will be the only game for the Admission Day fans to attend, a crowd of over 5,000 are [sic] expected.”
A few months ago, I wrote about the Berkeley Colored League and its enigmatic sponsor, promoter and entrepreneur Byron “Speed” Reilly in this post. Reilly was quite a character, not only owning baseball teams and serving as commissioner of regional hardball leagues, but also toiling a wire service correspondent and a music and entertainment promoter. He had his fingers in a lot of pies, so to speak.
Then there was Harry Crump, an African American who, eight decades ago, brainstormed a remarkably unique and quite possibly off-the-wall idea: Take the concept of the famed, bearded House of David barnstorming religious team and create a “colored” version of the Davids, gathering together talented African-American players and, on occasion, adorning them with fake beards.
The concept was either ingenious or insane. But what’s more, Crump hatched this plot in Iowa, of all places. That might seem to enhance the oddity of it all, but it actually made sense, because the Hawkeye State actually had a very thriving African-American baseball scene, and the Van Dykes greatly added to the richness of that tradition.
Craig Lewis, an entrepreneur in the Charleston, S.C., area, knows about the Colored House of David because his grandfather, Will Ollie Davis — whom everyone knew more colloquially as “Frisco” — played for the Van Dykes while he lived in Kansas City, a fact of which Craig Lewis is extremely proud.
“It’s a part of history,” Craig says. “Not everyone can say they had a relative who played professional sports.”
The phenomenon of an African-American version of the traditional House of David — which was based in Benton Harbor — was apparently not a unique one, with multiple editions of the black bearded bunch cropping up in addition to the Van Dykes. That includes the Cuban Colored House of David, which appears to have operated circa 1930 and, like the famed Cuban Giants of the late 1800s, had relatively few actual Cubans on the roster.
The phenomenon of the Colored House of David was chronicled by historian and Kent State University professor Leslie Heaphy, one of the chairs of the SABR Negro Leagues committee, in her essay, “Barnstorming Across America: The Colored House of David”:
“One team that filled its schedule each year with 100s of games but did not belong to any league was the Colored House of David.
“The Colored House of David borrowed on the popularity of the white traveling team … who grew their hair long because of their religion and formed a baseball team. None of the members of the colored team were associated with the religious sect in Michigan. In fact, in combing through newspapers trying to put together the story of the Colored House of David there appears to have been more than one team playing under that moniker. In the late 1920s and early 1930s a club came from Cuba and used the name the Cuban or Colored House of David and then there was the team called the Van Dykes or the Original Colored House of David, so named for the famous artist and his beard which one paper claimed was also formed in 1930.”
The Van Dyke House of David lasted well into the late 1940s, perhaps under different management that kept the tradition alive roughly a decade and a half after it began. Negro Leagues player Ernest Johnson, who hit the prime of his career with the Kansas City Monarchs from 1949-53, told author Brent Kelley in the book “I Will Never Forget” that it was the Van Dykes who gave him his start in professional ball, from 1947-49″
“Well, mainly we covered more of the Midwest. We played everybody. Back in those days just about every town of any size had their own baseball team. During that time, especially in Minnesota and Iowa, you had a lot of teams that were stocked with college ballplayers and guys that had been to the major leagues or been in minor league ball and they were playing in these smaller towns. That’s who we played.
“With the House of David we were paid on a percentage:60-40. No meal money, just 60-40.”
Johnson began with the Davids when he was just 18, a youngster out of Chicago who became friends with the Van Dykes business manager at the time, an ex-Negro Leaguer named George Bennett. In ’49, the Van Dykes crossed paths with the K.C. Monarchs in Des Moines, Iowa, and word of mouth got back to Dizzy Dismukes of the Monarchs that Johnson could play some good ball. At that point, Johnson hooked on with the Kaycees and hit the prime of his career.
For some, though, the Van Dyke Colored House of David would be their highest rung on the ladder of their baseball careers. Among that group was Craig Lewis’ grandfather, Will Ollie Lewis, who once in a while revealed tidbits of his ballplaying days with the Davids.
“He told us a little bit,” Lewis says. “It wasn’t very detailed. I could imagine he could have played in the major leagues if the opportunity had’ve been different back then. He played with Satchel Paiges, people like that.”
The Van Dyke Colored House of David was the brainchild of Harry Crump, a Missouri native born in roughly 1902 who grew up with his uncle and aunt, William and Ada Brown, in the town of Sedalia in Pettis County, Mo. By the time of the 1915 Iowa State Census — actually since about 1909 or so — he had moved to Des Moines for schooling.
Harry Crump’s 1925 Iowa state census card
By the time the 1925 state census rolled around, Crump was married to his wife, Naomi, and living in Sioux City at the tender age of 22. He listed his occupation as “carpenter.”
But his census form for that year differed a bit from the one 10 years earlier. In 1915, Crump had identified himself as a Missouri native, with both his parents hailing from that state as well. However, a decade later, Crump stated that he was born in Illinois and his parents came from Kentucky. And unlike in 1915, when he didn’t identify himself with any official religion, Crump in 1925 called himself a Methodist.
The 1925 state census also revealed the way Crump portrayed his racial identity throughout his life. In essence, it shifted constantly. When he was living with his aunt and uncle in 1910, the federal Census noted he was “mulatto.” By for the 1915 Iowa head count, he was “black.” But then, by 1925, he was identifying as “white.”
The shifting identifiers seem to indicate that he was probably a very light-skinned black who could pass for white but who often identified himself as black as well. Such disparities were absolutely common decades ago, when African Americans found it better to pass for white than face the prejudice and bigotry that came with being black.
Crump’s changing racial self-identity was again on display in the 1930 federal Census, when he was still living in Sioux City as a lodger. For that count, he listed himself as “Negro” and also, strangely enough, as single, with no trace of Naomi. And he was also portraying himself and his parents as natives of Missouri again. The 1930 Census stated that he was a “laborer” at “odd jobs.”
That set the stage for the formation of the Van Dyke Colored House of David in the ensuing few years. In my next post about the Van Dykes (which will hopefully come soon), I’ll chronicle what appears to have been the team’s first big season as a barnstorming unit, 1934.