Abe Saperstein presided over it all
I’ve been working on a story timed for Black History Month for CityBeat newspaper in Cincinnati about the Negro Leagues scene in the Queen City, but I couldn’t quite pull it all together in time. But I have gotten enough to write a shorter story for the paper and a couple posts here on the ol’ blog, so this will be the first of two pieces on Cincy here …
And this first story is one I just had to do because of its intrinsic connection to New Orleans. Introducing the 1946 Cincinnati Crescents, a barnstorming squad that was piloted by … none other than Napoleonville, La., native Winfield Welch, who was one of the best managers in the Negro Leagues in the 1940.
But there’s even more of a Crescent City connection to this quality traveling Cincy team. The guy who was pegged, at least early on, as the ace of the pitching staff was Groundhog Thompson, the stubby little NOLA native who got his nickname because he looked like, well, a groundhog.
However, aesthetic bodily features aside, Thompson — whose last name might actually have been Thomas, but for purposes of this post will go with the former — was one of the best pitching prospects in black baseball in the early 1940s. Unfortunately, the Hog didn’t quite pan out in the big-time Negro Leagues, so in ’46 he reunited with Winfield Welch on the Cincinnati Crescents roster. (As a side note, the Crescents’ mound rotation included other Louisianians, like Johnny Markham and Robert “Black Diamond” Pipkins.)
But who were in Cincinnati Crescents?
They were one of the many brainchildren of legendary sports owner/promoter Abe Saperstein, who was best known, of course, as the founder and owner of the Harlem Globetrotters hoopsters. And in 1946, Saperstein was quite the busy little beaver in black baseball.
On one count, he joined with Olympic champion Jesse Owens to form the West Coast Negro Baseball League, the first major venture into region-wide Negro Leagues ball on the left coast. But not only did Saperstein preside over the circuit, he owned its Seattle entry, the Steelheads — who, of course, featured NOLA native Herb Simpson, who recently passed away.
(The WCNBL had several more links to the Big Easy as well, most prominently with manager Wesley Barrow, who managed the league’s Portland Rosebuds and who encouraged Herb to come up to the Great Northwest to play for the Steelies. A few of us down here in NOLA are currently in the process of obtaining a marker for Barrow’s grave.)
But at the same time Saperstein and Owens were forming the WCNBL, Abe was pairing with Winfield Welch to bring together the Cincinnati Crescents, an independent barnstorming (or mainly barnstorming) team named after one of New Orleans’ nicknames.
And in many ways, the Seattle Steelheads and the Cincy Crescents were one and the same organization, despite being thousands of miles apart geographically.
That link was even formalized in early spring 1946, when the Philadelphia Tribune (and possibly other African-American newspapers) reported thusly:
“One of the surest signs that baseball is at last on the right track and headed for the same widespread cooperation that organized league baseball enjoys is the announcement by the Seattle team of the new West Coast Baseball League that a tieup has been made with the Cincinnati Crescents, the club W.S. Welch is assembling. The two teams will train together in the South … and play a spring schedule of games together. Seattle will have first call on all players Welch will not keep for the Crescents.
“In return, Seattle will give Cincinnati first call to purchase any players they may wish to sell. In no way, however, is Seattle to be regarded as a farm club.”
I found that last sentence to be intriguing, especially when viewed in light of the article’s very first sentence trumpeting the Seattle-Cincy deal as a harbinger of the type of networking that had existed in organized baseball for years.
But one of the basic foundations of organized baseball has always been the farm system and the link between major league teams and the minor-league franchises in their talent ladder. But the last sentence of the Philly Tribune article seems to discount the farm-system concept.
And indeed, the Negro Leagues never really established any sort of farming method at all, although some top-level teams did have informal arrangements with lower-tier teams. Perhaps the best example of this is the loose relationship between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Monroe Monarchs.
But back to the 1946 plot line … in the same issue of the Tribune as the aforementioned article was another one headlined, “Gus Welch in Ohio Readying Crescents.” The story refers to Welch as a “great manager of baseball” who was pulling together a team with a moniker that was “a throwback to one of the great teams he managed that first brought him into the national spotlight, the New Orleans Crescent Stars.”
The article also notes:
“Welch will meet with Cincinnati leaders, who have promised him their full cooperation, asking only in return that he put on the field the same type of aggressive, hustling aggregations that he has had in recent years.”
It’s a deal on which Welch definitely followed through, beginning with the inking in March of the famed Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe as a field manager-catcher-pitcher. Stated the Philly paper:
“Welch plans to build around the crack mound corps with young, dynamic and hustling players of the type for which he has become famous. The aggressive clubs he is noted for have been built up on this formula. Virtually all of the players who have become great under him were youngsters he developed and brought along carefully. He tolerates only winning ball players and they must hustle, and keep hustling, to play for him.”
After training with the Steelheads at one of New Orleans’ HBCUs, Xavier University, began plowing through an ambitious schedule, including a series with the mighty K.C. Monarchs in April and a barnstorming tour with the La Palomas squad from Havana.
The Crescents, who played what few home contests they had at Crosley Field, the Reds’ headquarters, then launched an eastern tour in June with a game in my home stomping grounds of Rochester, N.Y., against the famous bearded House of David aggregation.
An incarnation of the Chattanooga Choo Choos
One clash in particular stood out during the Crescents ’46 tour — a thrilling twin bill showdown for, perhaps, bragging rights in the Queen City in mid-July. That’s when they split a twin bill with arguably Cincinnati’s most famous Negro Leagues team, the Cincinnati Clowns, at Crosley Field.
The Crescents’ story didn’t end in 1946, though. In fact, the team once again became another crucial cog in the Saperstein sports empire. After fielding another hoboing squad in ’47 — when they managed to finished second in the prestigious Denver Post Tournament — the Crescents opened their 1948 season on late April of that year when they arrived in Chattanooga to play … Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters hardball team!
The clash was promoted in an April 17, 1948, article in the Atlanta Daily World, which described the Globies this way:
” … [T]his is the fourth season Abe Saperstein’s brilliant club has been in operation — the Globetrotters have come to be known and respected as a formidable factor on the diamond. Like their namesakes of the basketball court … the baseball Globetrotters mix high-grade thrilling play with the dash of showmanship so pleasing to the fans. A Globetrotter appearance is always a a novel an interesting occasion.”
The article then called the Crescents a “sparkling entry in the field of independent traveling Negro baseball teams … the Crescents have an even greater personnel than the one [that] grabbed off second place” in Denver the season prior.
The diamond version of the Globies
“With the Crescents are a number of top-ranking colored players,” the story added. “The team has a formidable hitting attack and boasts the pitching, defensive ability, speed and hustle to give any club a tense session.” In addition, the piece said Welch himself was “regarded as the top pilot in all Negro baseball …”
We ain’t done yet. To add to the madcap Saperstein empire, the Globetrotters of 1948 were piloted by Paul Hardy, who in 1946 had managed … the Seattle Steelheads! Another tangent to explore!
Herb Simpson with his Steelies jersey
Because, as the Cincy Crescents were putting together a solid record during the 1946 season, the West Coast Negro Baseball League, and the Steelies along with it, collapsed by early summer, proving a failure for Saperstein (and Jesse Owens) despite the venture’s ambitious plans.
With the disintegration of the WCNBL, the Steelheads evolved into a Saperstein-sponsored all-star team that subsequently launched a quite successful tour of Hawaii. On the team was a handful of New Orleans products, including the recently-passed Herb Simpson.
But further muddling matters was the fact that another Abe-funded team, the Cincinnati Crescents themselves, also played a series of 13 games in Hawaii in fall 1946 with the Hawaii Senior Loop Braves.
Convoluted and confusing? Definitely. I myself have trouble following it all. The trails from New Orleans to Cincinnati to Seattle and back to New Orleans form quite an interesting geographic triangle, all presided over by a man better known for creating a world-famous, clowning basketball team.