The (Kokomo) Devils inside, Part 2

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So by the end of May 1919, the Kokomo (Ind.) Black Devils — the “side project” of white, well-to-do clothier, athlete and socialite Charley Lyons — had lost arguably their two best and most popular players, George Shively (who is currently the focus of a grass-roots recognition movement in his hometown of Bloomington, Ind.) and “Circus” John Byers, both of whom had moved on to what they viewed as greener pastures.

But the resilient Devils forged ahead without the star pair, bravely facing opponents despite their personnel losses. And along the way they might have “caused” the death of Kokomo’s popular white minor-league team — or so claimed certain factions of the Hoosier State media.

The Kokomo Daily Tribune appears to have given somewhat decent coverage of the Devils’ activities. In the paper’s May 27, 1919, issue, the publication urged locals to attend “the big ball game to be held at Athletic park Friday, May 30, Frankfort vs. the Black Devils. If you want to see some real sport come and enjoy the game.”

However, those spectators who took up the Tribune’s advice were probably disappointed by an extra-inning, 9-7, loss by the Lyons crew. The news of the clash even made some minor waves in the big city of Indy, there the May 31, 1919, Indianapolis Star reported: “The McDougall Kitchen Cabinet team of Frankfort defeated the fast local colored Black Devils here … in the eleventh inning.” The Kokomo club gave up a whopping seven runs in the final, fatal inning.

In the same issue, the Indy Star announced that that city’s powerful professional club, the ABCs, were slated to cross bats with the Devils, a contest that concluded with a 14-10 loss of the visiting Lyons bunch.

The series of losses apparently prompted Lyons to again shake things up, stated the June 7 Kokomo Tribune, which reported that “[T]he Lyons Black Devils have reorganized and will play Frankfort, Ind., Saturday …”

The demon squad then engaged in another game on Independence Day, which prompted the Tribune to report giddily:

“Kokomo is not going to be entirely without a place to go on the ‘Glorious Fourth’ … Athletic park is to provide the setting for a rather notable baseball game. The erstwhile Black Devils colored squad have [sic] been shaken down and shaken up and new talent added until it has seen itself transmogrified into the Hoosier Giants. Charley Lyons with his well known characteristic of going the whole route with anything he undertakes whether it be taming a Ford or building up a ball team, has paired neither pains nor expense to make the Hoosier Giants the best semi-pro aggregation of talent in the state of Indiana. The confidence that he and his dusky players have in their ability is best testified to by the formidable club they are scheduled to cross bats with here on the Fourth — the celebrated Greys of Peru.”

The paper then stated that after that encounter, the Giants would clash with Kokomo’s minor-league white team, the Red Sox, “and from then on much will be heard from the colored team, very likely, until the close of the season.”

With that impending duel with the Sox, thus began the apparent, and probably latent and subtle, despair racism in north central Indiana, a state that in many ways was Southern in nature in terms of race relations and attitudes.

The July 2, 1919, Middlebury (Ind.) Independent blared in a headline of the coming of “The Famous Coons of Great Renown” in anticipation of the arrival of another black team in the state, the Elkhart Giants. The Middlebury article refers to an advertisement flyer published to hype up the Elkhart squad that gushes about the comedy routines pursued by the Elkharts and compares that aggregation to the Black Devils in that respect,” which seems to subtly reinforce the minstrelsy view of African-American clubs.

On July 3, the Kokomo Tribune again plays up the city’s “colored” team’s Independence Day encounter with the Peru Greys, a clash, the paper asserted, “which doubtless will be a big drawing card, since it will be the first local appearance of Charley Lyons’ reorganized colored baseball team which has picked for its debut here one of the very fastest baseball clubs in the state against which to [showcase] its ability and diamond prowess — the fast Peru Greys.”

Added the paper:

“Incidentally, Mr. Lyons announced today that he had decided to retain the original name of ‘Black Devils’ for the clash, they having evinced demonic qualities which are said to be so much more than ‘gigantic’ that he concluded the appellation of ‘Hoosier Giants’ was inadequately descriptive.”

However, alack and alas, the Devils couldn’t live up to such hype, losing to the Greys, 7-1. In reporting the defeat, the Tribune used terminology that wasn’t exactly progressive but was also somewhat sympathetic:

“The Black Devils were black enough but not sufficiently devilish in their Fourth of July game at Athletic park.

“But they have a pretty good alibi. Three of their star performers were lured to the cool recesses adjacent to Lake Manitou …

“Thus decimated, the Devils proved to be easy picking for the swift and classy Peru Greys …

“Which was too bad, in a way, because one of the best crowds that has filled the grandstand and bleachers of Athletic park this season turned out with the expectation of seeing a real for sure ball game, and disappointing them was not the least thing for the sport that could have happened. …

“That the colored team can play a high grade of baseball even from their poor showing Friday. Without reflecting upon the ability of the substitutes who were pressed into service at the last moment, it was the absence of the trio of talent mentioned that made the contest one-sided. The team-work that comes from through practice and playing together can not be found in a pick-up squad, and team-work means a victory half-won.”

Then came big “disaster” for Kokomo — the city’s supposedly beloved white minor-league squad, the Red Sox, folded, although they did it in a blaze of glory by, in their final game, defeating the very team that many pundits felt somehow led to the Sox’ demise.

Leading the way in this thinly veiled racist lamenting was the Logansport (Ind.) Pharos-Reporter, which alleged that somehow the relatively positive and substantive coverage by the Kokomo paper of the Devils killed the Red Sox:

“But now, outside towns and red-blooded lovers of the national pastime what has transpired to shove the once fast Red Sox into oblivion, and in its stead a ratter [sic] colored club to cavort on the Athletics field where once the proud and game Red Sox were the idols of Kokomo fans.

“Why, you ask? Well here’s ‘why!’

“The Kokomo papers for what reason is quite beyond us withdrew their support of the Kokomo Red Sox a couple of years ago, it is stated. … What we do know they have failed to support one of the best-drawing semi-pro clubs in Indiana, which was an asset to Kokomo in more ways than one.”

The article then rambles about how the support of local media is crucial to buoying and encourage support for baseball teams among the town populace. Those assertions are then followed by this description of the Tribune’s allegedly “biased” coverage of the Devils-Sox game:

“But the Kokomo papers seem to be blinded by all this: they give a second ratter [sic] outfit more space in a publicity way than they have accorded the Red Sox in years.

“In the half-column write-up of the Kokomo Black Devils, the scribe who wrote it was either misinformed or wasn’t handling the truth with much care …”

The writer, who only goes by the pseudonym “Tutes,” then again calls the Devils a “second-rater” club and somehow asserts that the Tribune had adopted the Black Devils as that paper’s squad — “their own team” — and generously excused what the Logansport publication called a poor showing by the Devils. In essence, “Tutes” claims, the Tribune was hugely biased in favor of a lousy “colored” team.

Oddly enough, however, the Kokomo Tribune’s subsequent coverage of the Black Devils trailed off immensely after that. Several possible reasons for this declining editorial trend exist. Perhaps the Kokomo publication was stunned and otherwise negatively affected by allegations of bias toward a black team and sheepishly dropped any perceived support of the Devils. Or maybe the Devils themselves fell apart financially and disbanded.

Any cause isn’t clear. But clarity is unfortunately something that is frequently lacking when examining history.
Fortunately, there is much more history to explore when it comes to Kokomo African-American baseball. While this series of articles on the Black Devils was originally spun off of the recent developments involving the unmarked grave of Negro Leagues star George Shively in Bloomington, Ind., once one delves into the backstory behind the Kokomo squad with which Shively briefly associated himself, a rich saga unfolds.

And next up in the telling of that saga is the life and legend of the Devils’ eccentric white owner, Charley Lyons …

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Winfield Welch and the Pullman Porters

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A Pullman porter

In this next installment of the saga of Napoleonville, La., native Winfield Welch — who eventually became one of the finest managers in big-time Negro League ball with the Birmingham Black Barons in the 1940s — I’ll look at his early years in New Orleans while playing for an aggregation of local Pullman porters, especially in coverage of the laborers’ teams in the local African-American paper.

The cultural and socioeconomic dynamics of Pullman porter society make up one of the most fascinating and crucial chapters in the bootstrapping, self-uplifting development and advancing of the African-American condition in the South. For our purposes, it’s important to note that athletic clubs often sprang from the porter society as a means for socializing, recreation and bonding experience among the black workers who toiled at the profession.

The Louisiana Weekly (hereafter called LW) started publishing in 1925, and an article on the front page of the April 10, 1926, issue announces that the local team of Pullman porters — African Americans who basically worked as butlers for white patrons on the Pullman rail lines — defeated the McDonogh High School nine, 11-2, at Tokay Tea park, a ball field located in the developing Broadmoor neighborhood. The squad of porters apparently went by the moniker of the Pullman Porter Stars.

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Playing for the porters? “Welsh, l.f.” Given that a) the New Orleans media misspelled Winfield’s name pretty much the whole time he was active in baseball in NOLA; and b) the 1930 federal Census lists Welch as a Pullman porter in the Big Easy, that’s in all likelihood Winfield Welch tasting some of his first baseball action — or at least first action that was documented — in the big city.

The 1926 LW article states:

“Under the direction of Coach L. Thomas and Mr. J. Wolf, the organizers of the Pullman Stars, plans have been perfected to have the strong Pullman nine tour the West and East. Mr. Wolf has been in touch with Pullman headquarters in Chicago and the officials are furnishing the local team with a private Pullman car, with all necessary equipment, from upper and lower berths to sumptuous drawing rooms. Yes, the Pullman Company is proud of its hard-hitting colored team, and this great corporation is showing it to the world. The Stars have arranged important games at Lafayette, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. The Eastern invasion will include Atlanta, Montgomery, Jacksonville and cities along the Atlantic seaboard.”

Less than a year later, the LW reported that Winfield’s brother, Arthur, had moved to New Orleans from Napoleonville with his wife, which seemingly would help Winfield feel more at home in the Crescent City.

In 1928, Winfield Welch was still suiting up for the Pullman squad, and the Aug. 25, 1928, LW — which was gradually increasing its sports coverage as the 1920s progressed — announced that the porters had pasted an aggregation from Port Arthur three games in a row, 2-0, 13-5 and 6-0, all of them held in NOLA’s Heinemann Park.

Welch — name spelled correctly — is mentioned once, toward the end of the article, when the anonymous reporter appears to state that Welch took the mound and held the Port Arthurs hitless in the third contest. (However, lineups aren’t listed, so Winfield might have been making pretty catches in his regular outfield slot.)

Another notable mention in the article is that Robert “Black Diamond” Pipkins pitched the second game for the Pullmans; Pipkins thus was apparently near the start of a long, colorful career in blackball, both locally and nationally. I hope to one day examine Black Diamond up close. One day …

Anyway, the Pullman Stars wasted no time getting back in action. Just three weeks later, reported the LW, the porters used the long ball to send a team of Louisville & Nashville railroad line workers to a 4-2 defeat — or, as the LW said, “swatted their way” to victory — at Crescent Star Park. The paper reports the porter team as the “T.P.-M.P. Porters,” and the clash was part of a double bill, with the second contest coming between the Autocrat and Iroquois teams.

“Both games were tight affairs and kept the 500 fans in attendance on edge throughout,” stated the Weekly. “The Trainmen played first in a fracas spotted with ‘beanings’ and twin killings.”

The article mentions “Welsh” is mentioned twice, once describing a long fly out by him to centerfield, the other referring to a run he scored on a home run by a teammate named Mollier.

“The game was worth anybody’s seeing,” the LW reported. “It was one of those exciting affairs filled with freak catches and hard hitting.”

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The next mention of Winfield Welch/”Welsh” in the LW comes in April 1929, when he’s no longer with the Pullmans but instead hooked on with the Algiers Giants, a longtime semipro team in a neighborhood across the river from N’Awlins proper. In fact, Welch would later return to the Giants, but this time as the manager. However, his trip back to the Westbank, as the “other side” of the river is called, took a lot of twist and turns along the way. But, as per usual, that’s for another post, another story …

Incidentally, the hardball played by New Orleans Pullman porters was actually mentioned occasionally in the mainstream white press in the city, especially in the Times-Picayune in late summer 1924. The Aug. 24, 1924, T-P reported in a headline, “Pullman Porters to Play Baseball,” almost as if the concept of “colored” men playing the national pastime was quizzical. Followed was a one-paragraph brief:

“Three days of baseball will be played at Bissant’s Park … by teams composed of colored Pullman porters. The Pullman Porter Stars will play the Pullman Porter Wonders on Saturday afternoon, while the Pullman Porter Stars play the Pullman Porters of San Antonio … on Sunday afternoon. On Labor Day, the Pullman Porter Stars will tackle the Houston … Pullman Porters. There will be music for dancing after each game.”

The white paper further talked up the event — albeit in a short, two-paragraph story — a week later, when it claimed:

“It is stated that the colored visitors from Texas have one of the best teams in that section of the country and the winner of today’s game will be the champions among the Pullman Porters of the South.”

The contest between the local Pullmans and the San Antonio club, the paper said, “is attracting much attention among the followers of this class of semi-pro baseball.”

Unfortunately, things didn’t go well for the local porter bunch — the Stars lost the first game to the Texans, although they managed to end up with a 6-6, extra-inning tie in the following clash. The locals then tied the Houston Pullmans 7-7 in a contest ended by rain and followed up with another shortened contest, this one called in the third inning because of darkness.

The local Pullmans again hit the field in mid-October 1924, reported the T-P, when the Pullman Porter All-Stars crossed bats with a squad from the Illinois Central line in the centerpiece of an annual “field day” at Bissant Park that also included other games and pastimes. Of the baseball game, the T-P said:

“These two baseball teams are among the strongest of the colored semi-pros and some excellent sport should result when they face each other.”

This time, the local porters fared much better, clobbering the Illinois Centrals 14-4.

The Times-Picayune continued to sporadically give (a minimal amount of) ink to the Pullmans, such as Sept. 7, 1925, article describing ever so briefly how another local semipro club dubbed the New Orleans All-Stars downed the porters 8-5 in the second game of a doubleheader at Bissant’s Park.

One thing that really needs to be explored in depth is the connection to and involvement in athletics, especially baseball, in the lives and society of Pullman porters, who did a thankless job that, however, ended up giving rise to a large portion of a burgeoning black middle class in the early 20th century.

For more information on the socioeconomic developments and improvements to African-American life that arose from porter culture — as well as all the sacrifices that were made and indignities that were suffered along the way — here and here and here are some books to check out.

The Iron Claw, Part 1

It was apparently a rather ignominious second half of life for someone who, for a handful of all-too-brief years, established himself as one of the most … unique shooting stars in the New Orleans Negro Leagues firmament.

Edgar Populus, in the early 1930s, was known as “Iron Claw,” most likely because he had, well, just one arm. Let’s just say I’d love to somehow, someway dig up a picture of this guy. At the time, he was the Depression-era equivalent of Jim Abbott, a pitcher of considerable promise that manifested itself early but seemingly burned out as quickly as it arose for public viewing.

In fact, Iron Claw was still a mere teenager when he burst onto the NOLA blackball scene in 1930 and, more fantastically, 1931, when he reeled off a string of dominating shutouts in the late spring and early summer.

His seemingly inexplicable prowess on the mound — dude had one arm! — enraptured the local African-American press and sporting public. Take this from the May 30, 1931, issue of the Louisiana Weekly in its coverage of a clash between two local sandlot teams:

“Thousands of fans stood spellbound Sunday afternoon while Edgar ‘Iron Claw’ Populus stood the Corpus Christi Giants up with two scattered hits and shut them out 8 to 0, for the Southern Stars on the Corpus Christi grounds.

“The one-armed pitcher gave up three walks and contributed to his team’s battery movements by clouting a triple. …”

A triple?!?!? The pitcher lacking an appendage crushed a three-bagger! That. Is. Insane.

Unfortunately, 1931 seems to have proven the zenith of Iron Claw’s career; he is mentioned in fewer and fewer media reports after that, and it looks like he was out of the game by the mid-1930s.

And it was all downhill from there — on a very steep hill. Between 1940 and 1961, Populus was arrested on at least four separate occasions on charges of running gambling handbooks out of bars. In other words, he was a horse bookie (which makes somewhat sense given that New Orleans is home to the Fair Grounds, a fairly substantive and nationally known racing track).

Then, in 1974, the bar at which he was working (apparently for his non-criminal job as a bartender), Cuccia’s on Allen Street, was robbed by a pair of gun-toting knuckleheads who made off with nearly $13,000 worth of cash, jewelry and a $5,000 cashier’s check that belonged to … Edgar Populus. He also had more than $1,600 in cash swiped.

And 16 years before that — in between gambling busts — Edgar’s mother, Antonia, and his brother, Adam (who also pitched a bit on the sandlots way back in the day), died within 10 months of each other in 1958. Edgar’s father, Antoine, passed away in 1973.

But at least all three of them — as well as Edgar and Adam’s grandfather, Lucien Populus Sr. — were afford at least some recognition in death, coming in the form of standard obituaries in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

When the once-great Iron Claw died in August 1983 (I have yet to pin down an exact date of death), his passing wasn’t mentioned in the T-P or Louisiana Weekly at all. But with apparently no children and all of his immediate family gone, there might have been nobody around to take care of details after Edgar died. That would indeed be tragic for a man who already faced life with a disability.

Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus, though, was a New Orleanian through and through. His family appears to have gone back numerous generations in NOLA as Creoles — mixed-raced southern Lousianians — who, as big city residents, weren’t shackled by slavery or sharecropping like so many of their brethren in the state’s rural areas.

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Page of the 1860 Census that shows Edgar Populus’ ancestors

I’ve been able to, as time permitted, trace Edgar’s family back to the 1860 Census in New Orleans and the respective families headed by two of his great-grandfathers. By 1900, the two strains of Iron Claw’s family were living within a block or two of each other, the Populuses on St. Bernard Avenue and the Oliviers on New Orleans Street.

In fact, the two fams are listed on the same 1900 Census sheet, in the city’s Ninth Precinct. The Populus clan was headed by the aforementioned Lucien Sr. (né circa 1852), a bricklayer, and his wife, Mary (born roughly 1858). The couple rented their home and had, at the time, a whopping eight offspring living with them, including 14-year-old Antoine, Edgar and Adam’s father. According the Antoine’s WWI draft card, he was born Aug. 1, 1886, a date that’s backed up by Social Security records.

Just around the corner, Edmund Olivier owned his own home and worked as — in an emerging familial theme — a bricklayer. (In fact, Lucien Populus’ father was also a brick mason.) Edmund’s birthdate is listed as unknown, although in previous federal tallies his birth year is pegged in the early- to mid-1850s, and multiple death records state it as 1855.

In 1900, Edmund (or Edmond) Olivier and his wife, Louise (born 1853), have eight kids, just like the Populuses around the corner. One of them is 14-year-old Antonia Oliver. New Orleans birth records have Antonia coming into the world on June 13, 1886. (That birth record, though, lists her full name as Marie Antonia Olivier, and it also misnames her father as Edward, a fact that causes some genealogical confusion given that Edmund, Antonia’s dad, in fact had a brother named Edward.)

Because of the close geographical proximity of the two families, it’s probably no surprise that Antoine and Antonia hooked up. The pair were married Aug. 28, 1908, and settled into wedded life in the city’s Sixth Precinct, Antoine working as a blacksmith and Antonia as an at-home dressmaker. Antoine later took up as a longshoreman, a very common job for Creoles and blacks in NOLA at the time.

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Along came Adam in 1911, followed by Edgar two years later, although multiple records list the future “Iron Claw” with a birthdate of April 28, 1912. Then, in the 1930 Census, both sons are still living with their folks, but by now both of them, still teens, were toiling as plasterers, while Antoine is dubbed a “laborer.”

‘Round about then is when the baseball careers of both Populus boys got off the ground … But that’s for Part 2 of the Iron Claw saga …

The Devils inside

Yes, OK, fine, I’ll admit it: Even after almost two decades, I have a rather bitter distaste for the Bloomington Herald-Times newspaper in Indiana.

That lingering antipathy was forged more than 20 years ago out of a rivalry we IU students had for the local city paper as staffers for the Indiana Daily Student, a rivalry born of admitted jealousy for the local “professional” journalists.

That seething animosity emerged despite the plain fact that the H-T writers were always very friendly and even occasionally helpful toward us IDSers, making our animosity for them of the petty and irrational type.

The IDS sports desk, perhaps in particular, resented sports dudes at the H-T. Why? Again, base jealousy. The H-T had the access and connection to the IU athletic department and its administrators, coaches and players, especially when it came to basketball, of course, which at the time was still marshaled by Bobby Knight. Looooooooooongtime H-T sportswriter and editor Bob Hammel, for example, was friends with Knight. They were downright pals. On top of that, Knight, he of the seemingly eternal grudges, didn’t speak to the IDS at all. He hated us for years because at one point decades earlier one IDS reporter did something to royally piss him off — which, naturally, wasn’t at all hard to do — and Knight held it against us for ages

And it extended to football, too, which I covered and at which time the pigskin program was actually pretty good, thanks to coach Bill Mallory. Now, on occasion I witnessed Hammel, Mallory and the rest of the coaching staff eating Dagwood’s subs for lunch together in Mallory’s office. His office! The inner sanctum!

(To be fair, Mallory liked me a lot during my two years on the gridiron beat, and always made time to talk with me. He even liked me after a certain incident before the 1993 IU-Purdue game that involved obscenities from a player that ended up on SportsCenter. He offered to provide job recommendations if I ever needed them. In the famous words of Edie McClurg, he was a righteous dude.)

Aaaaaaaaanyway … to this day the mere mention of the H-T makes me arch my back and hiss. Again, petty and irrational and proof that I have no right bashing Bobby for holding grudges. But when the H-T’s Andy Graham recently wrote a story — with heavy input from Hammel — about Negro Leaguer and Bloomington native George Shively, it both piqued my curiosity and made my blood boil.

I knew it was a story I had to jump on, and one I needed to do so much better than poor, naive Andy. He entered the wrong playground. The Negro Leagues is my specialty, and he just kicked grains from the sandbox in my face.

So I needed to dig deeper into the George Shively story and find some obscure yet spellbinding stuff. Which is what I did, or at least try to do, with this chapter from Shively’s career, a chapter I’ll divide into three sections, beginning with this one, which in itself has two parts …

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In 1919, after several years with the pre-Negro National League Indianapolis ABCs, the 26-year-old Shively kicked on up to Kokomo, Ind. — please refrain from any references to the horrible Beach Boys song — to play for the Kokomo Black Devils, a semipro squad a notch or two down from the ABCs in terms of quality.

Why exactly Shively, a stellar left fielder, would leave a first-class operation in the big city for a start-up townie team located 50-plus miles north of Indy remains unclear, but it probably had a lot to do with the owner of the Black Devils, a prominent, wealthy and white Kokomo clothier named Charley Lyons.

Lyons, who will make up the second installment of my Shively-turned-Kokomo saga, was by all accounts an eccentric, well-to-do man-about-town who liked driving fast cars (to the point of going on trial for speeding and publicly lamenting that his Ford couldn’t hit 90 mph), wearing $3,000 watches, playing handball, taking months-long trips to Europe and, apparently, pulling together a “colored” baseball team as a little side project.

Lyons announced the impending formation of the Devils in April 19, boasting that the club would beat the pants off any challengers, black or white. Stated the April 24, 1919, Kokomo Daily Tribune:

“Kokomo is to have a real colored baseball club, one which will be the equal of the famous A. B. C.’s or any other class A semi-pro ball club In the country. Ample financial arrangements have been made for the club and it is announced that the organization is backed by some of the most substantial business men of the city.

“It is also announced that some of the best colored ball players in the country will be seen in action here among whom more than likely there will be Clark. Kokomo’s favorite spectacled dusky baseball player, formerly with the A. B. C.’s who will act as manager of the local club.”

All grammar is from the original (as is the term “dusky”). I’m also unsure of who Clark is. It’s also interesting that at this point, Lyons was keeping his name out of it, although the subhead calls them “Lyons Black Devils.” But nonetheless, expectations were (unreasonably, as shown out) high for the Devils.

Of mice and men … Charley’s plan for hardball greatness quickly went astray and didn’t start off that phenomenally once the Devils actually hit the diamond. It’s not that they were horrible, they just were … blah.

They managed to win their debut game, a 6-4 victory in 10 innings over a mighty aggregation of … rubber factory workers. The Herculean feat was done in front of nearly 1,000 fans at Athletic park.

“The dusky demons proved their mettle all right, and if they can only preserve their morale throughout the season they should close with a top record,” reported the May 19 Tribune.

The team suffered a huge blow a week later, however, when one of the town’s favorite “colored” athletes, “Circus” John Byers — who will be the focus of my third installment of this tale — formed a rival club called the Western Black Sox. As per the May 26 Tribune:

“The Western Black Sox, ‘Circus’John’s aggregation of colored baseball talent, have mapped out a western route for July which will keep them busy for a while. Leaving Kokomo on the first of that month, they are scheduled to play Chicago Heights, Beloit Wis., and other teams in the west.

“For June the Sox have arranged games with Muncie, Marion and other nearby towns, including a series with Columbus.”

Then game the 1919 version of snark:

“Incidentally ‘Circus’ John wishes the newly organized ‘Black Devils’ success — until they meet the Black Sox. It looks as though $50 or $100 might be hung up in a series for these two dusky teams to struggle for …”

Lyons, who was by now the much publicized owner of the club, was irked enough to throw beaucoup bucks at the situation. That, my guess is, included luring a first-class, young outfielder and native Hoosier up to Kokomo with quite the generous job offer. Stated the May 29, 1919, Tribune:

“The strengthened Lyons ‘Black Devils’ have taken upon themselves the task of avenging the defeat which Frankfort’s Central Loop team administered to the [white minor-league] Kokomo Red Sox Sunday. Decoration Day the colored team will cross bats with the bunch from Frankfort at Athletic park. The game will not be called until 3:30, after the parade and all the exercises of the day are over, so there will be no interference with the Memorial Day program.

“The Lyons aggregation has been busy trying to strengthen all the weak spots in their lineup and have been lucky enough to acquire George Shively, famous left fielder of Taylor’s A.B.C.’s to cover the same position with the locals and captain the team. He will also be lead-off man in the batting array. …”

Two notes to that quote. One, it seems peculiar if not patriarchic that the paper would automatically assume the town’s African-American squad gave a poop about its white Kokomo counterpart and the latter’s loss to Frankfort, let alone be instilled with a burning desire to “avenge” that defeat. And ironically, as we shall see, the Black Devils’ popularity in Kokomo allegedly some led to the death of the white Red Sox later in the season.

The second note … Thus we finally have George Shively entering the Kokomo picture in 1919. However, Shively seems to have made an equally swift exit from the picture as well — I couldn’t immediately find any further mention of Shively in the ensuing media coverage of the Devils’ 1919 season. Indeed, it’s well known that in mid-1919, Shively bolted his Hoosier roots for big-name blackball teams out East, forever leaving behind any association with the semipro ranks.

So Rabbit Shively comes and goes in a heartbeat, becoming an obscure footnote to a slightly less obscure footnote of Indiana African-American baseball history.

But even after Rabbit ran, the Black Devils forged ahead throughout the summer of 1919. The rest of the Devils’ tale that season turns into one laden with racial implications in a state with a, shall we say, complex history of race relations, especially in the 1920s, when the KKK literally ran state government. I’ll unravel that saga later this week, in Part 1A of the Kokomo story …

Parallel experiences, parallel cultures

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Early Nisei players competing alongside a couple familiar faces. (Photo courtesy of Kerry Yo Nakagawa)

As I work on my story on the Berkeley International League of the 1930s, I’m interviewing various people connected to the league or students of ethnic baseball in the Bay Area in the first half of the 20th century.

That effort brought me last night to Kerry Yo Nakagawa of Fresno, a member of SABR and an expert and author on the subject of Japanese-American, or Nisei, baseball played by first-generation Americans of Japanese descent.

I wanted to speak with Kerry because there were many Nisei who took part in the BIL, contributing to the remarkable mélange of colors and cultures represented in Byron “Speed” Reilly’s semipro circuit.

Our conversation centered around how the Nisei, like many other immigrant cultures, often used baseball to integrate and assimilate into American culture and gradually become accepted as Americans.

(Although in the case of Japanese-Americans, that process was greatly interrupted by World War II and the shameful internment camps, one of the dark blots in American history. But even then, Kerry noted, Japanese-Americans still played baseball, even under the shadow of military and governmental oppression.)

Toward the end of our talk, I asked Kerry about how the story of Nisei in baseball paralleled the experience of African Americans who fought to obtain a level playing field, at least inside the lines. In addition to competing in the BIL, Japanese Americans in the East Bay formed their own barnstorming teams and regional leagues, much like African Americans had the Negro Leagues.

Crucially, Kerry said, baseball did serve as a reflection of American society in general, adding that the sport “does mirror both the Japanese-American experience and the African-American experience.”

“They were very similar,” said Kerry, the author of a book about Nisei baseball in Cali. “Both cultures felt that baseball was their American pastime, too, their Americana. They looked at the game as a way to make sure people knew they could play at a very high level.

“It gave them the respect of their peers, and the admiration of their friends and family in the stands, and they should as much appreciation for that [devotion] as they could by playing as well as they could.

“It really felt like a dual situation [for each culture],” he added. “They thought, ‘This is the game we play. This is our American experience, our Americana.’”

In that way, Kerry said, baseball helped both Nisei and African Americans feel like, well, Americans, despite the bigotry and prejudice they faced and, in reality, continue to face to this day.

He and I also talked specifically about the role hardball played in the culture of Japanese Americans in the East Bay area, in cities such as Berkeley and Oakland, in the 1920s and ’30s.

“For them, putting on a baseball uniform was like waving the American flag,” Kerry said. “Not only was it their Americana, but it was their way of showing they had the skills and the talent to be the best players on any diamond, that they could be as good or better than anyone out there. Outside the lines, it was a little blurry, but inside the lines, baseball was very black and white — if you can play at a high level, you were given a lot of respect.”

Sound familiar? The story of Nisei integration into baseball and into American society in general was facilitated by the sheer talent and skills, much like the experience of not only Jackie Robinson (and Larry Doby and Henry Aaron and Willie Mays, etc.), but of Negro Leaguers who showed up major leaguers in all-star exhibitions, barnstorming tours, Latin American leagues, etc. Something to ponder, for sure …

Update on 1925 murder

This is from time ago — see posts here and here — but I just wanted to give an update of my peek into the as-yet-unsolved 1925 murder in Harlem of young resident Benjamin Adair, a South Carolina native who was gunned down with no motive immediately apparent, but star Negro Leaguers and New York Lincoln Giants players Oliver Marcell, Frank Wickware and Dave Brown were allegedly at the scene of the crime. However, details have never been completely nailed down beyond spotty and often speculative contemporary media reports, like these:

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So several months ago I emailed a Freedom of Information Request inquiry to the NYPD for any files relating to the case that might be public record. I never heard anything back.

So yesterday and today I made a few calls to the police department. Yesterday I spoke with a woman at the departments office of public information, who took note of my fairly severe stuttering and, somewhat insultingly told me to e-mail a follow up because of “your condition,” which she said would make e-mail more productive. She then gave me an e-mail address, I wrote to it, and promptly had my message bounce back as undeliverable.

Soooooo, I called back today and talked to a marginally friendlier public information officer, who transferred me to the PD’s FOIL request processing often, where I spoke with an extremely courteous, friendly and helpful woman to actually thanked me for my call. She looked into my request and found no record of it, for which she was very apologetic. She then suggested I send another formal request, this time on hard copy through the postal mail, which I will try to do next week. She also noted that once the department received the request, it would immediately send back an acknowledgement of receipt letter within a week, which was encouraging.

I asked her what the chances are that a file from a cold cold case that happened nearly 90 years would still exist and be reachable, not to mention releaseable as “public record.” She was very frank but friendly.

“Each case is different,” she said. “If for some reason we can’t locate it, we’ll let you know. But there are so many factors.”

So, once I send the request, fingers crossed. I do have Ben Adair’s death certificate, but unfortunately, I don’t have have scan or JPG of it so I can’t post it. But here’s Adair’s WWI draft registration card:

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Odds and ends from the Louisiana Weekly

I’ve been combing through old microfilm of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper, New Orleans’ long-running African-American newspaper, and I’ve come across some pretty cool stuff, contained herewith.

This first image is from mid-1932. That year was a big one for blackball in Louisiana: The Monroe Monarchs won the Negro Southern League during the one season in which it was a “major league” blackball circle; Crescent City Park opened in NOLA as one of only two public ball fields open to the city’s black residents; and Allen Page, a businessman, entrepreneur and popular hotel owner, launched a new era in Big Easy black baseball circles when he made his first foray into local sports circles by first becoming half-owner of the New Orleans Black Pelicans, then full owner later in the year. Thus began his long tenure as arguably the most influential figure on the Louisiana Negro Leagues scene and a prime player on the national stage. Here’s a clipping of the Weekly article announcing his new ownership of the Black Pels:

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Next up is a clipping from October 1932 about Mildred Powell, who as a teenager led a local NOLA team of boys to a string of victories. This piece shows a picture of her, then hints at another up-and-coming female pitcher who will twirl for a team of guys very soon. Move over Toni and Peanut!

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Now here’s an article that shows exactly how massively important Rube Foster was. When he was committed to an asylum in the late 1920s, it created massive shockwaves through not only the Negro Leagues world, but African-American society in general, where he was a revered figure. That includes in New Orleans, where his commitment made the front page of the Louisiana Weekly, which at that point was just a year or two old and still had scant sports coverage:

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Finally, something quirky … In my research I keep coming across a NOLA-based pitcher named Edgar Populus, who toted the nickname “Iron Claw” because he reportedly had only one arm, a disability that apparently didn’t prevent him from being in high demand on local hurling mounds. I hope to do some more research into him in the near future, which of course I’ll report on here …