… I’m coming for ya!
That’s right. In keeping with my admittedly whimsical and mercurial researched interest, I’ve been thinking about looking into the Delaware blackball scene. Why? I like exploring, quite simply, and the Blue Hen State seems like fertile ground for such endeavors. It just seems like under-explored territory.
So, with that, I’ll use this post as a segue from my focus on NOLA and Louisiana the last couple weeks to not just spotlight Delaware, but to examine and search for answers to a handful of mysteries that’ve been bugging me lately (one of which will involve a Delaware native).
So what’s a connection between the Pelican State and the First State? Why, the irascible Oliver Hazzard Marcell, of course. The legendary third baseman with the equally legendary hot temper and penchant for getting into drunken scraps is a native of Thibodaux, La., who first cut his teeth for teams in New Orleans before moving on to fame, fortune and a bitten-off nose.
But in 1933, when his career was on the downward side, Marcell — that’s the proper spelling of his name — plunked himself down in Delaware — Wilmington, to be precise. Why? Because he signed on as the manager of the Wilmington Hornets, a semipro team that had existed for a while but that in summer 1933 joined the new Eastern Negro Baseball League, which, according to reports emanating from the nascent circuit’s meeting in Chester, Pa., would include franchises in Wilmington, Atlantic City, Chester, Newark and Jersey City. The loop’s schedule was set to start in early July, with every team playing four games a week, two at home and two away.
The movers and shakers behind the new organization believed that each franchise was already drawing well enough in good baseball towns to provide sufficient financial support for the enterprise to survive. (This despite the fact that the entire country was mired neck-deep in the Great Depression.)
“All clubs are playing before good crowds and with the added inventive [sic] of league competition the interest should be even greater,” reported the July 8, 1933, Baltimore Afro-American. The article named Marcell and Sam Johnson as the guys at the helm of the Hornets, and future Hall of Famer John Henry Lloyd as the skipper for the Atlantic City squad.
The league’s formation was the lead topic in the Pittsburgh Courier’s W. Rollo Wilson’s July 8 column. Wrote Wilson:
“Such a league ought to serve a worth-while purpose and be in effect what I have always contended for — a minor loop for the development of stars for the big clubs. With such men as Marcell and Lloyd in there teaching the kids the finer points of the game much good can come out of such a body. In their days and times Ollie and John Henry were rated the best in the business in their particular positions and Lloyd has established a reputation as an instructor of young talent.”
But in actuality, Marcell had already been with the Hornets for a few months, and Wilson sang Marcell’s praises weeks before the formation of the ENBL, especially in a June 10, 1933, column under the subhead, “MARCELLE PUTTING WILMINGTON ON MAP”:
“That old-time third baseman — the best of the race I have ever seen — is back in the baseball picture in a big way and his thousands of admirers will be glad to know that he is the playing manager of the Wilmington (Del.) Hornets, already rating as one of the better clubs of this eastern section. …
“Wilmington is a good ball town, and Marcelle will give the public a team which will make hot competition for the best of them. Here’s wishing him and Sam Johnson, the owner, the best of luck in a tight year.”
Wilson wasn’t the only writer ballyhooing the ENBL, Marcell and Lloyd. Afro-American columnist Bill Gibson, in a July 15 piece, echoed Wilson’s sentiments that the new loop would serve as a stepping stone and teaching ground for young players with talent destined for the big-time:
“A sort of middle ground has been a long-felt need — a place where these youngsters can be farmed out for seasoning. I was, there, able to tell Oldtimer [a visitor to Gibson’s office] of the efforts of Ben Taylor here in Baltimore and of Ollie Marcelle, at Wilmington, Del., and of John Henry Lloyd in Atlantic City.
“The two last-named managers only recently entered teams in an Eastern League which it is hoped will stimulate interest in semi-professional baseball and at the same time develop and polish off players who may have aspirations to climb. Taylor, Marcelle and Lloyd are of the old school of baseball and they not only know baseball flesh when they see it, but they have patience in nursing it along until it becomes of age.”
But, like so many ventures in the American pastime during the Depression, it wasn’t to last, for the ENBL or for Marcell in Wilmington. By early September, an internal shakeup had bumped Marcell out of the Hornet managerial position in favor of Highpockets Hudspeth, and the new circuit died a rapid, ignominious death.
Marcelle reportedly retired from the game a year later and, according the James A. Riley in “The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues,” “he faded from the sport scene and into obscurity.” Riley’s entry on Marcell makes no mention of the legendary player’s brief stint in Wilmington, and neither do the vast majority of bios on Marcell.
That’s how obscure Marcell’s tenure in the Blue Hen State was — obscure, but not insignificant, certainly for Delaware, which, I am learning, has a richer blackball heritage than I ever expected.
And thus do I shift from Louisiana to Delaware. The next chapter, which will hopefully come later this week? The mystery of the fate of Delaware native and one-time superb Negro Leagues outfielder Ed “Ace” Stone …