The Mariners and MLB on Herb Simpson

Here’s a story about the passing of my buddy Herb Simpson on the Seattle Mariners’ Web site via mlb.com. It’s pretty good:

http://m.mariners.mlb.com/news/article/106037126/negro-leaguer-herb-simpson-passes-away

I’m still gathering my thoughts to write some personal reflections about Herb either later today or tomorrow. Many emotions moving through me right now …

Terrible news

I just heard that my friend and former Negro Leaguer Herb Simpson died on Tuesday. Right now I’m suffering from shell shock. I’m trying to gather more information right now, and I’ll post it when I can. For now, here’s a very personal article I wrote about Herb this summer. Please keep his family and friends in your thoughts and prayers.

Henry Presswood and “Bloody Kemper”

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Apparently I hadn’t discovered the entirety of the picture when I wrote about the late Henry Presswood’s hometown of Electric Mills, Miss., in this recent post.

For that post, I did a little researching about the town itself and the significant and unique place it holds not just in Southern history, but American history.

What I didn’t think to examine at the time was the county in which Electric Mills — which effectively became a ghost town decades ago — sits. So when I searched for “Electric Mills” in some databases, up popped an article from the March 28, 1935, Philadelphia Tribune that contains reportage about the former town. Here’s the headline:

“Judge Lynch Presides: A Night in Bloody Kemper County, Mississippi.”

To stress the subject of the article, “Judge Lynch Presides” is spelled out in cursive writing made to look like rope — the type of rope used in hundreds of lynchings of black men and women throughout the entire country for decades, if not centuries.

That’s because the article is about the brutal mob beating of three African-American men in Kemper County named Yank Ellington, Ed Brown and Henry Shields. The trio were physically accosted and assaulted until they confessed to “their crime” — the March 1934 murder of a well known white planter.

Unlike many other similar examples of mob violence, the lives of these three men were spared because the local DA — and future U.S. Senator — John C. Stennis swiftly brought the three to trial six days after the killing in an effort to prevent the hoards of enraged white citizens — including officers of the “law” — from completing their task, dragging the three out of the county jail and killing them.

Of course, the trial proved to be a complete sham, a kangaroo court that ended with quickly and mercilessly imposed death sentences for all three. The proceedings led to an influential court case that overturned the convictions and sentences of the three men and effectively (if my interpretation is correct) outlawed the use of coerced confessions at trial and addressed the frequent lawlessness of the law enforcement community itself.

So Stennis may have conducted a kangaroo court — which was standard practice for black defendants during Jim Crow — he at least saved the lives of the three men by realizing that they would be murdered if he didn’t act quickly by bringing them to trial,  decision that eventually led to that crucial U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Mississippi.

I digress from the history lesson and head back to the Philadelphia Tribune article. The year-later reporting repeatedly refers to Kemper County — the birthplace and home of Negro Leaguer Henry Presswood, who passed away two weeks ago — as “Bloody Kemper.” Here’s one example from the article:

“Yank Ellington was seized by the mob, said to have been led by the sheriff of Bloody Kemper, on the night of the discovery of the murder of Raymond Stewart [the white planter]. …”

And:

“It may be that at the time this is being read that Yank will be dead — which will be just what the mob wishes to happen to him, since they are greatly angered at being deprived of the opportunity to have made eighth day of February a Roman holiday in Bloody Kemper.

“Poor Yank was the chief actor in the grim tragedy which occurred in Bloody Kemper just a year ago.

“Yank played a leading role and performed to a crowded house the night of his first appearance in the historic pages upon which have been inscribed the great number of brutal murders that have been committed in that county for more than 50 years.”

Thus it was common knowledge among African Americans in Mississippi and beyond that Kemper County — the ancestral home of Henry Presswood — was a cradle of white supremacist, mob violence. And in truth, that reputation most likely permeated the white community as well, at least tacitly.

According to the America’s Black Holocaust Museum, seven lynchings occurred in Kemper County between 1909 and 1930, including the death of a woman, Holly White, in September 1930 in the town of Scooba. The museum’s Web site lists five of those victims as “unknown Negroes.”

The appellation “Bloody Kemper” wasn’t just a journalistic termed coined for dramatic effect, either. In an interview conducted for the Civil Rights Documentation Project in 1999 and housed in the Tougaloo College Archives, Kemper County native and community activist Obie Clark, Clark describes his home county’s reputation in stark language:

“And I used the fact that when we were growing up, up in Kemper County, it was known as Bloody Kemper. We knew it as Bloody Kemper. Now there is a book, some white editor or publisher has published a book called Bloody Kemper, but it is not about what we called Bloody Kemper. It was about two white families feuding against each other. But we called it Bloody Kemper because of violence committed against black folks–lynchings and hangings and all.

“Our parents told us about that, people they knew. And so when we got to be teenagers, Mr. John Long, who owned the cotton gin, who owned the general store, and he owned the grist mill, and he owned the moonshine, you know the still that made whiskey. You know, he owned all those things.

“And our parents, when we got to be teenagers, our parents called us in and told us that it was time that we started calling Mr. Ben, Mr. John Long’s children, who were along our age, that we start calling them ‘Mister,’ and ‘Miss.’ And they told us always, they taught us, said, “If you go to the store, and the general store is closed, don’t go to the front door to get their attention. You be sure you go to the back door.” They taught us how to be second-class citizens.”

It was in this atmosphere that late African-American baseball player Henry Presswood was born in 1921. His parents, Dee and Josephine Presswood, were born in 1893 and 1892, respectively. Both of them had ancestral roots in Alabama, and Dee was, like most of Electric Mills, a worker at the famed electric saw mill that was the town’s sole reason for existence.

Young Henry later joined his father in employment at the facility. Josephine Presswood appears to have died sometime during Henry’s childhood; the 1940 U.S. Census lists Dee as widowed.

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In both the 1930 and 1940 Census, the Presswoods lived in almost entirely African-American neighborhoods in Electric Mills, not surprising at all in Jim Crow.

In his later years, Henry Presswood served as an ambassador for the memory of the Negro Leagues and, through his yarns, helped heighten public knowledge about black baseball.

One of Henry’s favorite stories to tell was how and why he came to become a big-time baseball player with the Cleveland Buckeyes — he accepted the invitation of an old friend and teammate who had preceded him to the top-shelf Negro Leagues. As Mr. Presswood told journalist Nick Diunte in 2010:

“Willie Grace went to the Buckeyes and he was the one who told them about me. He was from Laurel, Mississippi. One day I was working and who was at my job, Grace and the foreman! He asked me about going, and I wanted to go you know. … I said, ‘What in the world are you doing here, I thought you were with the Buckeyes?’ He said, ‘I am with the Buckeyes, but I told them about you. I came after you.’ I was really surprised. I accepted and went on up there.”

That story unfolded in the late 1940s, and Henry Presswood no doubt jumped at the opportunity presented to him by Grace because Henry loved baseball and felt grateful to be given the opportunity to play the sport for a living.

But you have to imagine that, at least in the back of his mind, Mr. Presswood was also, in some ways, extremely glad to be leaving a county known to black residents as “Bloody Kemper.” Any opportunity to leave such a violent, unjust, deadly setting had to have been appealing.

But if that was the case, it seems like Henry Presswood never talked about it with the public in his later years. He never really discussed the societal, cultural, legal and political context of his roots and upbringing, which certainly wasn’t uncommon for aging Negro Leaguers, many of who — like many African-American citizens of Southern origin — didn’t want to revisit such a terrible era and setting.

Henry Presswood might have been content to let sleeping dogs lie, to not reopen old wounds, in his later years. The prospect of doing so might have simply been too painful.

But perhaps Henry Presswood never discussed things like “Bloody Kemper,” even reluctantly and quietly, because he was rarely actually asked about it. Maybe he never revealed that history because fans and journalists never inquired about it, never considered the context of Henry’s youth when meeting and interviewing him.

Such a situation could reflect a pair of modern realities when it comes to the public and African-American history. One, many younger generations of Americans simply aren’t aware or educated about how horrifyingly oppressive Jim Crow actually was. Younger citizens, of all races and ethnic backgrounds, experience a disconnect from historical reality because of ignorance at best and, at worst, an unwillingness to “go there.” We simply don’t want to hear about it.

The second reality Mr. Presswood’s story reveals is that amongst sports fans and sports journalists — even ones who love the Negro Leagues and are of aware of and deplore the injustice of baseball segregation — often never even realize or, worse, comprehend that there’s a larger world, a greater existence beyond a simple game, outside of merely sport. Quite ironically, and tragically, we still experience mental and journalistic segregation — the sports pages are about sports only, and everything else remains relegated to the “news” sections of newspapers, magazines, Web sites or TV broadcasts. Sports are fun, and let’s just leave it at that, we tell ourselves.

And I will swiftly state here that I am certainly guilty of this sin of omission and compartmentalization. I’ve really never asked my New Orleans friend and former Negro Leaguer Herb Simpson about what it was like growing up here, in the deep South, never probed his memories for such unpleasantness.

Why do I do this, or rather, not do it? One, because it shamefully never occurs to me; I’m too giddy looking at all his baseball memorabilia in his home in the Algiers section of NOLA. And two? Maybe because I don’t want to make Herb discuss such subjects, because I fear that it might force him to revisit possible traumas of his youth.

How did Henry Presswood feel about his youth in “Bloody Kemper”? We may never truly know for sure. But ask any of his Southern black contemporaries and products of Jim Crow, the numbers of whom are rapidly thinning and dwindling as time advances, the “hard questions,” and you might not like what you hear — any more than the person likes reliving a shameful American past.

It’s painful just to think about these modern realities. And that in itself is tragic.

‘He was a manager first and foremost’

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I’m working on an article for Acadiana Profile magazine about Napoleonville, La., native Winfield Welch, a longtime Negro League manager who won a couple NNL titles with the Birmingham Black Barons after earning his spikes on the sandlots and ballparks of New Orleans and other Pelican State cities.

As part of my efforts, I interviewed Dr. Layton Revel of the Center for Negro Leagues Baseball Research and one of the preeminent experts on black baseball in the South and Alabama in particular. Dr. Revel offered me intriguing insights into the impact Welch had on African-American baseball.

Welch, Dr. Revel said, was something of an anomaly in blackball; while many of the black managers who had come before Welch — from Sol White on down, with Rube Foster being the blueprint — had been successful players and often player/managers, Welch was the first great African-American skipper who lacked a star-powered playing career. As such, Revel said, Welch sort of broke the mould when it came to finding quality managers in the Negro Leagues.

True, Welch did start his tenure on the diamond as a club and semipro player — what baseball figure of the early 20th century didn’t? — especially in NOLA, he was a marginal player at best who lacked the talent to earn a dependable, everyday place in a lineup or on the field. (I go into Welch’s playing days in N’Awlins a little bit here and here.)

Instead, Dr. Revel stated, Welch’s hardball talent was his acumen for eyeing and developing talent, especially in the South and particularly the deep South:

“The impressive thing about him was that he knew baseball, and he knew brilliant baseball, and he knew how to recognize a ballplayer. He knew how to scout and sign players. When he was putting together his team, he knew what he was looking for, much like Rube Foster.”

Welch also — retread cliché ahead — knew how to get the most out of his team. While his Black Barons teams of the mid-1940s might not have been been studded with superstars, he shaped his lineup into a group of dedicated, committed role players who fit together like a perfect puzzle.

“He knew how to manage a team on the field,” Dr. Revel said. “He found a way to win. He knew the science of baseball.”

Welch was like Foster in another way as well — he became a master at “small ball,” foregoing slugging for game management, speed, aggressiveness and smarts.

And because he possessed such abilities as a locator and groomer of talent, Welch accomplished what no one before him really ever did, said Revel: “He brought championship baseball back to Birmingham. He kind of set the stage for a time of prosperity for the Birmingham Black Barons.”

This is what it boils down to, said Revel:

“He’s probably the best Negro Leagues manager that no one’s ever heard of. Flat out, he was one of the best managers in the Negro Leagues.”

What I hope to show in my Acadiana Profile article is how Welch especially kept a pipeline of talent open from New Orleans to Birmingham and beyond. Welch brought so many great players from the Pelican State to the big time.

In the process, Revel said, Welch deflected the praise and recognition for his teams’ successes from himself onto his players. He was content to stay back and watch his masterful creation shine. Said the doctor: “His players and team got the notoriety, not him.”

Thus, concluded Dr. Revel: “He was a manager first and foremost.”

Henry Presswood, 1921-2014

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Like just about every man (and woman) who played or managed in the Negro Leagues, Henry Presswood did what he did for one main, simple reason — a passion for the American pastime.

“It really excited me because I loved the game and they said I could play!” Mr. Presswood giddily told the South Bend Tribune in 2011. “I just did the best I could.”

At 93 years old, Mr. Presswood was one of the last remaining living links to the Negro Leagues, one of the dwindling few who could personally recall how much of their lives and souls they and their peers devoted to the game.

But a few days after Christmas — just about a week or so ago, the exact day is unclear — the baseball world lost one of those links when Mr. Presswood died in Chicago. According to reports, a memorial service is slated for today (Saturday) in the Windy City.

Leslie Heaphy, one of my friends and mentors in the world of Negro Leagues research and writing and a leader of SABR’s Negro Leagues committee, told me by email a couple days ago that while she wasn’t close friends with Mr. Presswood, she knew what he meant to hardball history.

“I did not know him extremely well but had met him on numerous occasions and presented with him once in Chicago,” Leslie said. “He was always a gentleman, quiet and courteous and loved life. He was a good player, not a star but a solid team player.”

She added that Mr. Presswood’s death represents “a sad loss because his passing represents one more loss to the fading Negro League history. He was so good at telling people about the years he played, and each time we lose a voice, the story seems to get harder to tell. He lived to tell people about his experiences.”

Mr. Presswood reached the black baseball big time in the late 1940s, just as segregation in the American pastime was crumbling and the Negro Leagues were transitioning into a type of feeder system for organized baseball. He competed for the Cleveland Buckeyes in 1948-1950 and briefly for the Kansas City Monarchs a couple years later.

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Mr. Presswood first flew into blackball’s big-time radar early in 1948, when the Buckeyes started eyeing him for a possible slot at shortstop, which the Cleveland Call and Post said would be the subject of spirited competition for the starting job that year. But Mr. Presswood, the paper stated in January 1948, was near the top of the list.

“Among the short stop contenders going to the Hot Springs training camp in March [is] Henry ‘Schoolboy’ Presswood, [of] Canton, Ohio. A right hander, batting and throwing, Presswood has played with the Canton City League, in the army, and with a number of southern teams. He is 26 years old, 5 feet 10 inches, 150 pounds and a native of Birmingham.”

Mr. Presswood eventually nabbed the starting job, and while he never became a superstar in the Negro Leagues, he quickly proved his worth as a spunky little spark plug.

“Henry Presswood, a Mississippi lad,” wrote the Call and Post in June 1948, “is shining bright at short and has been hitting well.”

You’ll probably notice a few discrepancies in those quotes (not counting the violations of Associated Press style at which modern newspaper journalists would quiver). That’s OK, because in March 1950, the Call and Post somehow shaved five years off Mr. Presswood’s age and engaged in some geographical rejiggering, calling him “a shortstop … from Canton, Mississippi and …23 years old.”

Let’s clear a few things up. Mr. Presswood was born Oct. 7, 1921, in Electric Mills, Miss., not Birmingham or Canton, Ohio. And when the January 1948 Call and Post article said Canton, they likely goofed and meant Canton, Mississippi, where Mr. Presswood had played semipro ball for the Denkman All-Stars from 1938-44 before being spotted by Cleveland Buckeye scouts.

Mr. Presswood was the second child of Dee and Josephine Presswood, both Alabama natives who who eventually moved to Mississippi on State Highway 45 in the Kemper County community of Electric Mills, which was a de facto property of the Sumter Lumber Company.

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The Sumter sawmill in Electric Mills

The company made Electric Mills famous — not to mention spectacularly bright, for the times — by constructing one of the country’s first sawmills powered completely by electricity. Hence, naturally, the town’s name.

Dee Presswood was, like pretty much all of Electric Mills’ male residents, a laborer at the Sumter facility. He also became a single parent when Josephine passed away in the 1930s. Henry Presswood soon joined his father as an employee of the sawmill, and in his time off, the younger Presswood played baseball for the semipro Mill City Jitterbugs after completing two years of high school.

Dark times came to Electric Mills in 1941, when the Sumter corporation shuttered its mill there in 1941, and the community quickly devolved into little more than a ghost town, a status that remains to this day.

(I’m hoping to write a little more about Henry Presswood’s Mississippi roots sometime next week.)

In February 1945, young Henry — at the time he was 23 years old — enlisted in the Army in the waning days of World War II, becoming a private and serving, according to the Web site baseballinwartime.com, for roughly two years.

Married to his wife, Thelma, Henry was discharged from the Army and briefly returned to the semipro Denkman team before hitching on with the Negro American League’s Buckeyes and later, briefly in 1952, with the famed Kansas City Monarchs.

Henry and Thelma settled in Chicago, where he worked at the Inland Steel Company for more than 30 years and played fast-pitch softball for the company team before retiring. (Inland Steel shut down in 1998.)

In his later years, Mr. Presswood became a spokesperson for the Negro Leagues, attending numerous events and regaling hundreds of baseball fans and hardball history enthusiasts with tales and remembrances of his playing days. His death a huge loss to the Negro Leagues community and to the history of the American pastime itself.

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Presswood was interviewed for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s Legacy 2000 Players’ Reunion Alumni Book, in which he summed up his tenure in African-American baseball’s big time.

“I was very excited to play baseball in the league …,” he said. “I didn’t let my skippers in Cleveland or in Kansas City down.”

Those Lincoln Giants …

Up until this point, I’ve considered the mid-1930s Pittsburgh Crawfords to be the best African-American baseball team — not to mention the best baseball team anywhere, anytime, period — in history. But as I do more research into the life of Dick Redding (with assists from Gary Ashwill and others), I’m coming around to the notion that the Lincoln Giants of the 1910s is certainly a contender for the title. Thoughts?

New West Coast blog

A couple quick posts to start off the new year …

Here‘s a cool new blog by my friend Ron Auther about the Negro Leagues on the West Coast. He has personal ties to the scene in the Bay Area, so he has some pretty neat insights into the hidden and underrated blackball scene on the left coast. he’s also not afraid of speaking his mind and tossing up some “controversial” proposals and thoughts. He’s new to SABR and so far enjoying his pursuits. Check him out!