One facet of Cannonball Dick Redding’s life and baseball career — aside from his sordid, 1948 death in a Long Island mental hospital — that’s been gnawing at me has been how, exactly, he picked up America’s pastime and the way in which he got his start as a legendary fastball flinger.
Biographies of him seem to be clouded as to this matter. How did he go from an Atlanta youth with familial roots in rural Georgia to Negro Leagues greatness? That’s been hard to pin down.
Scattered bios of him feature a rather fantastical story about mythically famous major leagues manager John McGraw being blown away by Redding’s talent when the later pitched batting practice for McGraw’s New York Giants as the major-league club passed through Atlanta.
These biographical sketches — perhaps largely begun by an early essay John Holway did about Cannonball’s life based on an interview with Redding’s contemporary, Jesse Hubbard — claim that Redding’s prowess at the G-men’s batting practice in 1911 prompted McGraw to bring Cannonball north with him. McGraw then allegedly hooked the youthful Georgian up with black baseball legend Sol White, whose Philadelphia Giants were just starting to become an Eastern power, and off Redding went on a stellar, easily Hall-of-Fame-worthy hardball career.
But the historians and enthusiasts I’ve spoken with either discount that tale or have never even heard of it before. Indeed, there’s no proof whatsoever that anything like that actually happened. It’s also unclear how McGraw would have known White well enough to convince the season African-American baseball veteran to sign Redding up for the nascent Philly Giants. Although White sometimes wrote about the irascible Giants manager in the former’s newspaper columns and even lauded McGraw’s racial open-mindedness on occasion, there’s no hint that the two were personal friends or anything.
What seems more likely is that White and the Philadelphia squad themselves picked Redding up as they moved through Atlanta. But if that was the case, how did White see Cannonball in the first place?
Did Redding play for the semipro Atlanta Deppens that then played an exhibition against Sol’s team? That’s another possibility. But again, I haven’t found any articles or box scores from Deppens games that include Redding, who was apparently known in Atlanta as “Spaniard” for unclear reasons.
Then there’s the notion that Dick hurled for the Morris Brown College baseball team. However, I called an archivist in Atlanta specializing in historical collections from regional HBCU’s, and no Morris Brown yearbook lists Dick Redding as an enrolled student or baseball player. In addition, no contemporary articles or box scores of MBC games feature any reference to a Redding.
So what’s the deal? This seems like a major gap in the Cannonball Dick Redding story — verifiable and/or documented proof of not only started playing baseball but how he reached the big time.