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.


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

3 thoughts on “A Negro Leaguer in my old stomping grounds

  1. Pingback: The Devils inside | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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