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.
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.
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.