The (Kokomo) Devils inside, Part 2


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 …

2 thoughts on “The (Kokomo) Devils inside, Part 2

  1. Pingback: New book examines black baseball in Richmond, Ind. | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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