‘We were there until the summer’

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This is kind of a follow-up to my post from last week about Wesley Barrow, Sam Allen and the Raleigh Tigers. Actually, this post here will focus more on Allen and his experiences with the 1958 Tigers, because at least one of them is a doozy.

Allen, a Norfolk, Va., native, joined the ’58 Tiger lineup at an interesting time. He was coming off his best season, 1957, when he led the Negro American League in runs scored and was among the circuit’s leaders in hits.

Meanwhile, the Tigers were a year away from finally making the Negro Leagues big time — after years mostly as a semipro team, the Raleigh club would become full-fledged members of the NAL in 1959.

So the ’58 campaign kind of fell in between a huge season for Allen and a huge season for the Tigers. It was also at a time when the Tigers’ longtime owner, Arthur Dove, was struggling to keep the franchise afloat financially. According to statements by his grandson, Arthur Dove III, even though Dove Sr. derived the majority of his income from his massively successful string of music juke joints in NC, Dove’s true passion, and the one who followed most closely, was the baseball team.

But after I talked with Sam Allen, it seems like Arthur Dove had a funny way of showing that devotion, because Allen told me that Dove was, essentially, a skinflint, one who scrimped on everything from salaries to travel arrangements.

“I didn’t think too much of him as an owner,” Allen says. “He was real cheap.”

To wit … At one point during the 1958 season, things almost literally fell apart for the Tigers as a team when their bus broke down on a northward barnstorming trip. While Allen says the squad usually played contests in NC, like around the Raleigh-Durham area or at Camp Lejeune Marine base in Jacksonville, N.C. (although the Tigers did also square off against the mighty Birmingham Black Barons once or twice), on this instance the aggregation headed up to West Virginia for a spell.

They did that only to have the bus crap out in Welch, W. Va., stranding the team indefinitely. While the players did manage to secure enough cars for a trip to Chattanooga, Tenn., for a game, that was about it. The Tigers were stuck in tiny Welch, which had a population of about 5,300 at the time and that, today, is just over 13 percent African-American.

And what did Arthur Dove do? Nothing. He didn’t spend a dime to help his players get back to the Tar Heel State. He just left them there to fend for themselves, depending on their own resources and the generosity of others.

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Allen says a local hotel took pity on them and gave them rooms and three squares a day, fortunately.

“We stayed up there for a couple weeks,” Allen says. “I got on a telephone and called my mother to ask if she could send me $100. She said, ‘Boy, you must be crazy.’

“[Dove] left the whole team in West Virginia,” he adds. “We were there until the summer.”

So Allen had to resort to hitch-hiking back to Raleigh with a teammate. When he got there, he said, “Forget this,” and gave up on the Tigers, largely because of Dove’s tight yank on the purse strings, and bailed as soon as he could despite his earlier plans to stay with Raleigh in ’59.

Well, actually, he did start the 1959 season in Raleigh, but as soon as the Memphis Red Sox came through town for an early exhibition match-up, Allen hooked on with them and left Raleigh in the rearview mirror.

The 1959 campaign proved to be the end of Allen’s pro hardball career — in 1960 he was drafted into the Army, and although he played military ball while in the service, his days as a paid athlete were pretty much over.

So, nearly six decades later, what are his memories of his time in Raleigh with the Tigers? Surprisingly, not so bad, considering the issues he had with the franchise’s head honcho:

“Raleigh was a pretty good baseball town. We had the Raleigh Tigers on one side, the Raleigh Capitals on the other side. We weren’t that bad a team. But with us, we really didn’t have [togetherness] when we played other teams. But for the sport of baseball, we got along pretty good.”

I should make quick note here that I haven’t had a chance to speak with any of Arthur Dove’s relatives, and I’m sure they might tell a different story about the Tigers’ owner. But Sam Allen’s story has been corroborated on the record — in interviews with the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, multiple ex-Tigers discussed the dire financial straits.

One was Ernest Fann, who played for the team as a youngster in 1962 before heading into the minors of organized baseball. He told CNLBR:

“Blue Moon [John Odom] and I played with Arthur Dove’s Raleigh Tigers baseball team. We didn’t really know much about Negro League baseball, all we knew as that we loved playing ball. Neither of us got a regular salary, but we did get meal money. I think we got about $ 5 a day, but I could be wrong.”

But the testimony of Lakeland, Fla., native Oscar L. Walker is even harsher:

“In 1960 I signed to play with the Raleigh Tigers of the Negro American League. My contract called for me to get $ 350.00 a month and it was even notarized. But all I ever got from Arthur Dove was meal money. I rode with Mr. Dove in his big Cadillac, while all the other players rode on the team bus. Mr. Dove was always talking about selling me to the Big Leagues. They told me the Pirates and White Sox were interested, but I never knew what was going on. To tell you the truth, I felt like a slave. I wasn’t receiving any money and all they could talk about was selling me. After two years of riding with Mr. Dove all over the country, I quit and came on home to Lakeland.”

Wow. I’d say that well, life in the Negro Leagues was often tough all over, but Walker’s tale is especially disquieting. Again, maybe the Dove family would tell a different story. I will try to get into contact with them soon.

And maybe the Tigers, circa 1960, were just suffering through the pangs of their death throes, like the rest of the dying institution known as blackball.

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2 thoughts on “‘We were there until the summer’

  1. Pingback: A (belated) review of the reunion | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  2. Pingback: Interested in contributing? I want you! | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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