A couple of articles

I know it’s been a lean time in terms of posts to this here blog. I’ve had a flurry of deadlines the last couple weeks, and I haven’t been able to scrape up time to put up anything truly meaty here for a while. It might be that way for another week or so — I have a deadline tomorrow, another Thursday and another Monday, plus I’m getting ready for the Malloy conference coming up in just over a week.

But … here are a couple articles I just had published, one in Atlantic City and one in Wilkes-Barre, of all places …

http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/sports/local/phillies/linwood-negro-league-enthusiast-raises-funds-to-mark-player-s/article_e3e28dde-330d-11e5-98a1-47dc08035ec0.html

http://timesleader.com/sports/localsports/375198/celebrating-wilkes-barres-1st-negro-league-game

Hope you enjoy them!

Another mysterious death, another unmarked grave

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Sometimes being a Negro Leagues journalist and historian can be somewhat depressing, to say the least. I love the research and writing process, but often that research and writing leads to realities that are just sad — and once in a while, mysterious.

This post is a follow up to this one I recently did on 1920s Hilldale Club outfielder George Johnson and labor relations in the Negro Leagues. It’s also kind of an add-on to this recent post I wrote about Delaware native Ed Stone, another Negro League outfielder, who’s buried in an unmarked grave in New Jersey.

While my previous post about Johnson expanded to explore labor rights in blackball, this post will focus on his personal life and background, leading up to a sudden, possibly mysterious death and what appears to be an unmarked grave in suburban Philadelphia.

According to his WWI draft registration card, Johnson was born on April 20, 1890, in San Marcos, Texas, which is near Austin. However, the 1900 Census — which has Johnson living in San Marcos with his parents, Alex and Amanda, and younger siblings Mary and Henry — states that Johnson was born in April 1892.

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It appears that by 1910, George Johnson might have moved to Fort Worth to live with his aunt, Annie Hunt, and work as a laborer at a packing plant, according to the 1910 Census, which also gives his age as 20, which would support the birth date on his draft card.

A residence in Fort Worth in the 1910s is supported by the same draft card, which states that in June 1917, he was living in Fort Worth. His occupation is listed as “Baseball player” for the Dallas Black Giants. His place of employment, which is a bit unusual, is listed as “travelling” [sic], suggesting that the Black Giants were a barnstorming bunch. The draft card states that he is tall and slender.

Issues of the Dallas Morning News in 1918, include occasional mentions of the Black Giants, usually just a paragraph or two; at the time, it was common for the mainstream media to virtually ignore African-American baseball teams, or give them extremely short shrift.

Reports in the Morning News state that during the 1918 season, the Black Giants crossed bats with teams like the San Antonio Black Broncos, the Hot Springs Bears (who are also referred to as the Bear Cats), the Fort Worth Wonders, the Waco Black Navigators, an unnamed squad from Oklahoma City and an aggregation of soldiers from nearby Camp Travis.

The Black Giants were part of the Texas Colored League, and they appear to have used Gardner Park as their home diamond. The paper, though, makes no mention of Johnson specifically.

But later in 1918, Johnson had moved on to bigger and better things — namely, the famed Hilldale Club of Darby, Pa., a suburb of Philly. The 1920 Census seems to have the 29-year-old Johnson living in a rented apartment by himself, with his occupation listed as a hotel porter. (I say “seems” because George Johnson isn’t exactly an unusual name, especially in a big city. However, this George Johnson’s birth place is stated as Texas.

By the time the 1930 Census rolled around,  39-year-old George was still in Philadelphia, but he had married his wife, Catherine, , a 37-year-old Tennessee native, and had a 5-year-old daughter whose name is illegible on the Census page. George is listed as a hotel cook, while Catherine is a cook in a private family.

Why do I think this George Johnson is the one we’re looking for? The Census page states that he, as well as both parents, were born in Texas; his age roughly matches up to his birth date; and his 1940 death certificate also lists his wife as Catherine Johnson.

I couldn’t locate George or Catherine Johnson in the 1940 Census. Why? Because it seems they were both tragically deceased. Johnson’s 1940 death certificate states that he’s widowed.

But let’s focus on George himself. The Aug. 15, 1940, issue of the Philadelphia Tribune reported on his passing:

“George Johnson tagged home plate for the last time Monday.

“The former Hilldale star of many years ago was buried, following his sudden death last Tuesday.

“Known to many fans by virtue of his excellent play at centerfield and because of his ability with the bat, Johnson was one of the most popular players of the old Hilldale team.

“‘Home-Run,’ as he was called, was 50 years old and lived at 322 north 55th street.

“A native of Texas he hailed into town after a stiff apprenticeship with the southern ball clubs. He joined Hilldale in 1918 and played through until 1925. After he left the Daisies he played one season with the Lincoln Giants.

“He made Philadelphia his home following his retirement from active part in the game [sic], and lived with Phil Cockrell, former Hilldale pitcher, who was one of the pall-bearers.”

The article states that Johnson was survived by his daughter, Betty, and a niece, Ceola Smith. Services were conducted at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church by assistant Rev. Connie McDaniel.

For our purposes here, the crucial statement in that article is that the death was “sudden,” without any further explanation. In addition, I could find no other follow-up or corresponding articles in the Tribune offering more details.

So let’s moved to his death certificate. According to this document, his date of death was Aug. 6, 1940, with his address matching the one given in the Tribune article. As stated before, the certificate states that his wife, Catherine, was deceased. His place of death was Presbyterian Hospital.

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The certificate reports his occupation as “laborer” and his age as 50 but gives no birth date; however, it does list his place of birth as San Marcos, Texas, and his father’s name as “Alec Johnson.” But the report also states that the name of his mother is “unknown.” Johnson’s niece, Ceola Mae Smith, was the informant.

But here, along with the Tribune’s article stating his death as sudden, is the eerie part — no cause of death is given at all. Instead, it says the local coroner is conducting a pending inquest into Johnson’s death.

And when I called the current city of Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office — which replaced the office of coroner — a staffer there said their records only go back to 1942, and even they did have documents from 1940, it would take a living relative or, failing that, a lawyer’s subpoena to get documents.

So it seems that George Johnson might have died somewhat mysteriously. But there’s more.

Both the Tribune article and the death certificate list the place of interment as Lincoln Memorial Park. His death certificate states the date of interment as Aug. 12, 1940.

I called the facility that evolved from Lincoln Memorial Park, Mount Lawn Cemetery, and a staffer there told me that George Johnson was indeed buried there and that records only noted that an inquest had been pending at the time of burial and that the grave site was owned by “the George Johnson estate.”

Then the big thing — the staffer told me that there’s no record of a headstone being purchased or placed at the grave.

Which brings us back to the last paragraph of the Tribune article:

“A movement to gather funds to erect a bronze memorial tablet over the grave of the outfielder was started among his former teammates.”

Sadly, it looks like that kindhearted effort might have failed. And thus we have yet another Negro Leaguer in an unmarked grave.

George Johnson, the Negro Leagues and labor rights

It seems like George Washington Johnson was never a great ballplayer — maybe a solid, above-average outfielder with a decent bat and quality fielding skills — but in January 1925, he did something that truly caught my attention as I was researching this story on the 1925 Hilldale Club’s Colored World Series championship.

According to the Jan. 10, 1925, Philadelphia Tribune, Johnson issued a statement that, according to the paper, “strikes a new note in an already complicated situation and urges players of the Eastern [Colored] League to organize for the purpose of protecting themselves from exploitation at the hands of owners or managers.”

The article then quoted Johnson thusly:

“It is great to have a winning club. But to have it you must have a bunch of real fighters who can weather a whole season, fight for the lead and hold that lead against all other clubs in the circuit. Such a club Hilldale had last season.”

But, the Trib wrote, Johnson also believed that the 1924 Colored World Series was seriously mismanaged by the powers that be and that, the paper stated, “Johnson declares that in all future series the players should demand the Lion’s share out of the first four games out of seven and that should the series go to nine games the first five out of nine should go to the players.”

The Tribune then again quoted Johnson:

“The money that the players should have received is spent on big parties, automobile rides, sight-seeing tours and expensive cigars. Oh yes, the big fellows have to have the best rooms in the hotels while the players fare like hoboes.

“There is no reason why the players should not come together and stand up for just and equitable treatment.”

Wow.

So what Johnson was essentially advocating was the formation of a Negro League players union, a half-century before the birth of the MLBPA and the first true labor entity advocating for the rights of top-level professional baseball players.

Remember that Johnson said this during the height of the so-called “Red Scare,” when the nation was absolutely freaking out over the rise of communism in Russia and elsewhere and the Klan was routinely parading and railing against the alleged infiltration and subversion of the country by communists who wanted to organize labor unions as a way to destroy the very fibers of American freedom.

Plus the great, early civil rights activist, writer and philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois, always controversial and bold, was moving more and more toward actually becoming a communist and advocating the organization of labor, especially black labor, as a way of lifting up the poverty-stricken masses.

So it was already a heady time in terms of the national sociopolitical backdrop, and George Johnson was dropping himself squarely in the middle of the debate by, of all things, calling for, essentially, a Negro League players union.

But in the Negro Leagues, when it came to labor rights vs. management rights, the picture was much, much cloudier and complex than in Major League Baseball, where there was the iron-clad reserve rule binding players completely and forcefully to their times and completely subjugating them to the whim and whimsy of their teams’ owners and managers, and that was that. Reserve rule. Period. And that last for decades and decades until Curt Flood finally got things moving in terms of cracking the dreaded reserve clause.

That clause in MLB was strictly, almost brutally enforced by the Major Leagues’ first commissioner, and arguably its most powerful in history, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who. it was been asserted countless times, saved “organized baseball” after the Black Sox scandal by, among other actions, severely punishing the perpetrators of said scandal and cracking down harshly on gambling in the game.

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Landis also, as we all know, strictly, infamously and with an iron fist enforced the color line until the very day he died in 1944.

But despite Landis’ virulent racism and stubborn clinging to unwritten segregation, many in management in the Negro Leagues longed for a ruler like him in black baseball to straighten up the loosey-goosey nature of the sport in the African-American community. While leaders like Rube Foster and others did their best to “keep players in line” and prevent player actions like rampant contract-jumping and roster raiding, such “incorrigibility” still ran wild at times, much to the chagrin of rival owners and administrators.

In 1920, for instance, during the winter meetings of the Negro National League, according to the Philadelphia Tribune, “The clubs adopted a working agreement whereby the association is protected from players jumping contracts.”

The league’s bigwigs also established lengthy lists of each team’s “players under contract or held in reserve by managers or owners of clubs operating under the agreement.” Included on that healthy-lengthed roll call was Hilldale’s very own George Johnson, then just two or three years advanced past the scrub leagues of Texas.

There was also the occasional sentiment from fans and the sanctimonious black press that Negro League players were, well, spoiled brats. Wrote Rollo Wilson in July 1924:

“Ball players are something like that king who was old Cardinal Wolsey’s friend. And also — they never appreciate the nice things fans and writers say about them. It’s just like water which fell on the proverbial duck’s back. But pan ’em once and watch the smoke wreathe from their nostrils as they invoke the seven Sutherland sisters or whatever sisters they are who brew the potions which take away rhyme and reason away from the brains of the typists. They take praise as a matter of course; they feel that it is something one gets paid for saying. And they are above criticism. We have at all times taken the part of the men in the ranks, but we have a sneaking suspicion that the guy with the B.R. may be right sometimes after all.”

OK, that quote kind of gets bogged down in its own floridity and references to folk tales that I’m sure were relevant nine decades ago but that I have no idea what they mean today. But the point is clear — players are snotty, prickly, oversensitive, pampered jerks.

Extend Wilson’s logic and line of thinking and it’s not surprising that writers like him groused so much when these spoiled, disloyal men were so willing to jump from team to team — or country to country — so quickly and willingly because they were grossly underpaid by their skinflint owners, who almost always had the support and backing of the black press’ hotshots like Wilson.

It’s also worth noting that reporters and especially columnists who covered the Negro Leagues — and, for that matter, the Major Leagues — were themselves quick to arch their backs and high-mindedly fume at criticism leveled against them.

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But is that really any different than the reality Curt Flood discovered so painfully and tragically a few decades later? And is it so different than today’s media — and, naturally, the fans who read/listen/watch what those media men and women have to say — which for years have decried and bemoaned the mega-salaries paid to modern players without, apparently, comprehending the irony that those athletes are paid largely because such fans and journalists continue to follow, report on, consume and otherwise feed into the system that allows players to sign deals worth hundreds of millions?

Having at times been a standard sports beat writer — as opposed to the eminently learned and trustworthy historian I am now, of course — myself, I can say first-hand that sports beat writers are just as spoiled and pampered as the athletes they cover, and in many respects, it’s always been that way.

Esteemed columnists like Rollo Wilson felt it was their right to have unfettered access to the athletes, managers, coaches, administrators and owners they covered. And they were never, ever above dropping little nuggets of snarky gossip whenever possible.

Just like now, when the clowns on “SportsCenter” spout out tired, lame catchphrases, slogans and cutesy little sayings over and over again like parrots in place of true, incisive commentary and thoughtful dialogue. Superficiality rules the modern media, who gladly gobble up the lavish, free meals in the pressbox and become indignant and/or sanctimonious when athletes like, oh, say, Richard Sherman actually speak their mind — and, quite often, the painful truth.

Wow. Where did that come from? That was one lengthy and probably unnecessary diatribe which itself was probably, quite ironically, holier-than-thou in its own right. So back to the original script — the idea of labor vs. management in the Negro Leagues …

Actions taken by blackball owners and management in the 1920s seemed to establish the precedent of them attempting to create and maintain a labor system much like the one that existed in organized baseball — a system designed to fatten their own wallets under the guise of discipline, law and order, and some players, like George Johnson, were keenly aware of what was actually going on.

In January 1926, just a year after Johnson publicly advocated for the creation of some sort of formalized player labor organization, the magnates of the ECL, at their annual meeting, again attempted to drop the hammer on their employees. Reported the Amsterdam News:

“To that end that the game be elevated, the Commissioners went on record that all fines previously incurred during the 1925 season by the players and had been paid by the club owners were considered unpaid and liable for collection in the event the amount of the fine had not been deducted from the player’s salary.

“Managers, players and subordinate employees who are not financially interested in a League club come under the ban for releasing or publication [sic] matter [sic] considered detrimental to the welfare of the league and heavy penalties will be inflicted for violation of this ruling.”

In other words, a gag order.

Then there was a joint session of the ECL and the NNL. Reported the News:

“From these minutes it developed that several players had been billed for justified indebtedness by clubs that they formerly played with, and with such players who at the present time are employed in either league, it was unanimously decided that the debts must be satisfied, club owners to be held responsible, and July 1, 1926, set as the time limit.

“Realizing that many of the clubs in both leagues have been playing a losing proposition relative to the topheavy salaries that have been paid, and where figures show that it does not come in at the gate, it was decided to set a salary limit to be adhered to by all the clubs, the figure reached being three thousands dollars per month for the payroll of any club.”

In today’s terminology, a salary cap. And again, notice that the action was taken with the owners’ bottom line in mind, not the players’.

The article concludes with the lengthy list of each team’s (except Newark, which was running behind) reserved players. On the list for Hilldale? George Johnson.

But oops! Just two months later, Hilldale owner Ed Bolden unceremoniously shipped Johnson (along with Joe Lewis) to the Lincoln Giants. Was Bolden getting payback on Johnson for — gasp! — speaking his mind about player treatment?

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No, of course not. Bolden traded the two fellows for much needed talent elsewhere on the diamond.

But oops again! That wasn’t the case. Per the Philly Tribune:

“In admitting the change Manager Bolden intimated that a cash consideration had completed the deal as the Lincolns had no players who were needed by the champions this season.”

So it wasn’t a trade at all. Bolden just dumped Johnson (and poor Lewis) for some cash, almost as if … Bolden just wanted to get rid of him. But why in the world would Bolden do that? Because, as the Tribune further stated in the same article:

“Johnson has been one of the best outfielders in organized baseball for a number of years. His handling of fly balls is close to perfection and he is a handy man with a war club.”

Huh, funny, isn’t it? An owner shipping off a quality player for just a fistful of dollars only a year or so after that player complained about the treatment of players in the league. No, there’s absolutely no connection there at all.

Wait, I said it’s totally OK for sportswriters to be sarcastic and snarky, right? I said that, didn’t I? I’m pretty sure I did.

Hilldale’s 1925 title

Just had this come out today on philly.com about the Hilldale Club’s 1925 Colored World Series title:

http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/other_sports/A_title_season_90_years_ago.html#disqus_threadVis

I’m hoping to have a post by the end of the week on something connected to this story — outfielder George Johnson, who, as noted in the story, called for a Negro Leagues players’ union in 1925. In my hopeful post I’ll try to discuss a bit about the differences between labor practices in the Majors versus the Negro Leagues — namely, how Negro League owners, fans and reporters lamented the lack of a reserve clause like the one in the Majors and how, eventually, decades later, thanks to Curt Flood and others, the reserve clause in the Majors gave way to free agency.

I also discovered that George Johnson seems to have died a mysterious, sudden death …

And I promise I’ll have a Ducky Davenport update soon!!!

Mahlon Duckett, 1922-2015

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Another one has been lost to the ages.

On July 12, City of Brotherly Love native Mahlon Duckett, the last living member of the Philadelphia Stars, passed away. The ranks of these Negro Leagues greats sadly but inevitably keep dwindling, and every time one passes on to greener pastures, we must honor their contributions and sacrifices as well as step up our efforts to preserve their memory and the glorious history of which each of them were crucial parts.

Here is an obituary on philly.com, and here is a story on Mr. Duckett by the Philadelphia Tribune. Also, I turned up this neat interview he did with SI Kids just a month ago.

His pick to win it all? He wisely ain’t saying

I’ve been trying to do as much Ducky Davenport research as I can to find out where the NOLA baseball legend and Negro League veteran might be buried, but other projects have been consuming my time.

But yesterday I called another NOLA old timer, Paul Lewis, to see if he knew Ducky and, if so, if he might have an idea where the latter is interred. I first met Mr. Lewis at the ceremony to dedicate Wesley Barrow’s new grave marker in Gretna, La.

Unfortunately, while Mr. Lewis had indeed heard of Davenport in local hardball circles, he never knew Ducky and therefore had no idea where he might be buried.

However, I did have a cool conversation with Mr. Lewis about today’s baseball players. He’s currently chillin’ in Biloxi on a little break from NOLA, but he’s still been following the current MLB season, and he says he continues to be amazed at what the modern baseball player can do on the field.

“They have some amazing ballplayers,” he said. “They can play beautiful ball. They can make some plays that I never thought players could make.”

Specifically, Paul loves watching today’s backstops ply their trade, especially because he was a catcher himself way back in the day.

“All the catchers are good,” he said. “They’re out of sight. I was never as good a catcher like these guys are. Yes, indeed.”

I brought the conversation to what teams he thought might have a chance to win it all. While he said his most beloved team is the Yankees, he was very reserved in expressing their level of play this year.

“They’re all right,” he said with a chuckle.

Then I popped the big question: who’s his pick to win it all this year, to triumph in the World Series?

That query drew a hearty laugh from the 90-something Mr. Lewis, who jokingly declined to reveal his thoughts on the matter.

“I don’t answer that question,” he said, playfully stifling loud guffaws. “I’d be lying about it if I did. I don’t have no pick. I don’t do that no more. I just go around with the game. You end up just picking a team that doesn’t win. You pick a team you love, then they don’t do anything.”

Perhaps a gem of wisdom from a guy who’s been around the game his entire life? As a nonagenarian, Mr. Lewis knows a thing or two about how to follow the world of baseball — always squeeze for your favorite club, but don’t pick who’s gonna take the crown. You just end up looking a bit foolish in the end. 🙂

Not quite, buddy …

I’m going to try to put up a few posts this weekend, but I just had to get this on here tonight because it was such a strange incident …

So I’m in the parking lot of the neighborhood supermarket, and I’m wearing my Detroit Stars hat. As I’m walking toward the doors, a cars pulls around to leave the lot.

The guy driving apparently saw both me and my hat, and as he passed by me, he had his passenger window down. He leans over and says, “Right on, Cowboys!” Then drives away.

So he seems to have mistaken my Negro Leagues hat for a Dallas Cowboys hat. I’m guessing he did that because the cap has a star on it. But the star is red on a white background. The Cowboys’ star is blue.

Honestly, ever since I received the cap at last year’s Malloy conference, I’ve worried that people, especially in this quite red state of Louisiana, would mistake the hat and the red star as something associated with communism or Cuba or Che Guevara or some other nonsense.

I never envisioned anyone — especially in NOLA, where the Saints rule and Saints fans despise the Cowboys — mistaking my Negro Leagues hat for an NFL one.

But, I suppose, weird stuff happens pretty much every day …