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 …
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 …