A half-pint called Squatter

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This little half-pint is Edward “Squatter” Benjamin, a NOLA native who in the 1920s and 30s-ish was a multi-sport sandlot and semipro stalwart. I tripped across this while doing freelance research for a project being undertaken by another writer — more on that later — and found it in the June 19, 1937, issue of the Louisiana Weekly.

I’d never heard of Squatter Benjamin before, but this picture was too, well, adorable to pass up. The context for the photo is the 1937 local sandlot season and a four-team city league created by Peter Robertson, a somewhat legendary figure on the Crescent City Negro Leagues scene about whom I’ve researched little up until this point.

There’s just so much rich, entrancing blackball history here in the Big Easy that I’ve never gotten around to digging much into the Pete Robertson legend. But what I do know is that Robertson managed and/or owned several baseball franchises over a few decades in the first half of the 20th century, and at least once he was involved in swirling controversies and power-struggle dramas.

But in early ’37, Robertson brought together area sandlot squads, including the Squatter Benjamin-managed Gypsy Tigers, in a citywide semipro league. At some point during the season — and I haven’t had time to glean too many details about this — the Gypsy Tigers were involved in a game that featured a controversial call that, according to some, tipped the contest against the Tigers and in favor of their opponents, the New Orleans White Sox, who won the game.

Squatter Benjamin, the skipper of the Tigers, then lodged a protest with league headquarters, such as they were, over the disputed incident. But, according to the caption from this Louisiana Weekly photo:

“Edward ‘Squatter’ Benjamin … withdrew his protest, for the benefit of the Peter Robertson City League, over a disputed play in a game last Saturday.”

As you can see with the header about the picture — “Sportsmanship” — Benjamin’s gracious move to drop his beef was well received by the local black press, which all season did its best to pump up and support the city league.

Benjamin’s decision to forgo his dispute for the good of the league was even reported in the mainstream white NOLA media at the time, including the Times-Picayune, which reported that Benjamin decided to drop his protest during a tete-a-tete between himself, Robertson and White Sox officials.

In the grand scheme of the long, complex history of the Negro Leagues in New Orleans — not to mention in the larger, gigantic, national blackball firmament — this incident is no more than a minor, barely perceived blip. But because of his tiny, sawed-off stature and goofy but absolutely appropriate nickname, Squatter Benjamin — like Black Diamond Pipkin, Iron Claw Populus and so many other fascinating NOLA Negro Leagues personalities — is worth a small historical glance …

Edward Benjamin was born, according to military records, on April 25, 1905. He was the fourth child, and third son, of Edward Sr. and Jennie — also called Lulu — Benjamin, who appear to both have been born in Alabama. Both Edward Sr. and Lulu were born during the Civil War years, which means they both could have been slaves originally.

However, Edward Sr.’s ancestral roots might be traced to Central America, possibly Costa Rica, and at one point — namely, the 1900 Census — Edward, Lulu and their burgeoning family were living in Vicksburg, Miss.

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But the 1910 federal Census lists the entire family as “mulatto” living in an otherwise all-white neighborhood in NOLA. Edward Sr. was an odd jobs laborer in New Orleans; the family lived, at various points, on Gentilly Terrace Road and Allen Street. However, apparently at some point Edward Sr. became a minister but died between 1920 and 1930.

Edward Jr. went to to attend Straight College here in New Orleans — Straight was one of the progenitors or modern-day Dillard University — and became a teacher. The 1930 Census lists the 24-year-old Squatter living with his widowed mother and his brother, Roland, in New Orleans.

It was in the 1920s that Edward Benjamin Jr. became involved in the local semipro and sandlot sports scene; the little guy was a starting quarterback at Straight during his college years and for the semipro New Orleans Elks in the 1930s. On the diamond, Squatter pitched for the 1926 Caulfield Ads squad that won the Negro Southern League crown. Benjamin also appears, as the’40s arrived, to have gotten into boxing management, including handling local fistic gladiator Baby Kid Chocolate.

Then World War II came, and on Dec. 3, 1942, at the age of 37, Edward Benjamin Jr. enlisted in the Army to fight for his country. He served as a private until being discharged in August 1945. Squatter’s enlistment records list him at a diminutive 5-foot-2, 149 pounds.

Squatter returned to his hometown after the war, and by the time he reached retirement age in the 1960s and ’70s, he became active in the New Orleans Old Timers Baseball Club, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory and history of local Negro Leaguers. Benjamin participated in several of the club’s reunion all star games, in fact.

Edward Benjamin Jr., nicknamed “Squatter” for most of his life, died on Dec. 4, 1984, at the age of 79 and was buried at Corpus Christi Church.

Thus past into history one of New Orleans’ countless colorful segregation-era African-American athletics legends, but because of his college education, his service as a teacher and his valorous service during World War II, Squatter Benjamin perhaps holds a special place in local sports history.

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Before white supremacy, base ball trailblazing in Wilmington

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Of all the cities in the newly repaired Union, why, of all places, was the Southern coastal burg of Wilmington, N.C., one where African Americans actually led the way in baseball?

This was, after all, the place where one of the most open and violent coups d’etat in U.S. history occurred — in 1898, a group of white insurgents bloodily overthrow a democratically elected, biracial city council, in what many historians now believe was the final nail in the coffin of Reconstruction and the official ushering in (along with Plessy v. Ferguson) of a new era of severe Jim Crow political and social policies and white supremacy in the South.

But more than 30 years before, in 1867, Wilmington became one of the select few cities in which, apparently, the first organized base ball (two words back then) team materialized was black. Stated the Aug. 22, 1867, Wilmington Post:

“We are glad to chronicle the fact that a Base Ball Club has been at last organized in this city. On Tuesday evening last, a number of the colored young men met at Allen Evans’ saloon for this purpose. … An election for President and Secretary of the club was held, which resulted in the choice of Allen Evans as President and Robt. H. Brown as Secretary. A committee of five was selected to select suitable grounds, which committee are to report at a a meeting to be held this evening. It was resolved that the organization be known as the Osceola Base Ball Club and the first meeting for practice will be held on Friday … “

Unfortunately, I couldn’t immediately come across much additional information about the Osceola Club of Wilmington, but in the wake of its formation, other aggregations, black and white, popped up throughout the city over the last few decades of the 19th century, during which base ball coalesced as the American pastime and the country lurched, with starts and fits, through the rocky process of Reconstruction.

This was a time when African Americans in the South could be and were elected to positions of power in their local, state and federal governments. Buoyed by the Republic Party and the steps toward racial equality it pursued, black citizens found a level of achievement and access to power that had heretofore been only a pipe dream, especially in the antebellum South.

It didn’t last into the 20th century, of course, but for a couple brief decades, African Americans were, for the first time in many parts of the country, held on more or less equal footing as whites. For example, in Wilmington, Robert H. Brown, who was elected secretary of the Osceola Base Ball Club, served a spell as a city police officer.

But in Wilmington, it was Allen Evans, the president of the Osceolas, who was arguably to most successful African American in the city, one of the leading Republican activists in the region and a successful Wilmington businessman.

Over the years, Evans operated a barber shop, a grocery store and a liquor saloon. He’s listed in the 1866 income tax rolls as both a liquor dealer and a retail seller; in the 1875 city directory as a grocer; in the 1870 federal Census as barber; and in the 1880 Census as a grocer and barber.

In those last two, interestingly, Evans is reported as a “mulatto,” probably the progeny of a white slave holder and a black slave. In fact, it seems like he was a slave who purchased his own freedom before marrying his wife, the former Charlotte Meashey.

For example, the journals of Salmon P. Chase — the sixth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. treasury secretary under Lincoln, and a former governor of and U.S. senator from Ohio who was a strident opponent of slavery — detail one of Chase’s trips through the South, including a stop in Wilmington, where he was met by a local group of black citizens, including Allen Evans, whom Chase described as “a smart young fellow barber by trade — bought himself & had conveyance made to his wife who was free …”

Evans was, in fact, a prime candidate to lead an early African-American base ball team. At the time, black ball clubs were frequently helmed by representatives of the emerging African-American middle class, in which barbers, saloon operators and retail sellers, much like Evans, were held in very high regard.

In addition, the leaders of early black base ball clubs frequently doubled as local political leaders and social activists, many of whom were involved in the nascent civil rights movement. In fact, these leaders sometimes melded the two — base ball and civil rights — with the former being viewed as a vehicle for promoting the latter.

While it’s not clear if this was specifically the case with Allen Evans and the Osceola Club in Wilmington, there’s no doubt that Evans was a well respected political operative, even admired by many in the white community, albeit probably grudgingly. For example, the April 5, 1870, issue of the Wilmington Daily Journal stated:

“The name of Allen Evans has been put forward by himself and friends as a candidate for the Legislature. Allen is a colored man, and one who has always conducted himself properly and becomingly. Without wishing his election we prefer a hundred times seeing him in the Legislature to such carpet-baggers as Gizzard French. During a life-long residence here Allen has shown a most proper deportment.”

True, that paragraph is saturated with condescension, paternalism and a subtle bigotry in today’s light, but for a Southern daily paper just five years after the Civil War, such a statement was downright progressive.

Four years later, the Wilmington Daily Star proffered a similar backhanded compliment, with the requisite amount of 1870s snark:

“Allen Evans is a candidate for the nomination as one of the Board of County Commissioners. He is the first modest Republican we have seen.”

There’s no doubt that Evans was active in Republican and African-American politics; in December 1868, for example, he was one of the organizers of a New Hanover County convention of local black citizens to nominate representatives to a similar national gathering.

That’s not to say that it was always an easy haul for Evans; his name popped up in an unsavory vein in the papers here in there. For example, in August 1871, a man connected to Evans’ saloon was murdered under seedy circumstances; in March 1874 he was accused of fencing stolen goods, a charge he refuted; in April 1876 one of his sons was nearly incinerated by an accidental home fire; and portions of his various businesses were damaged multiple times by other fires.

But by the time Evans reached middle age in the 1880s, he had become such a respected member Wilmington’s African-American community that, in February 1881, he opened a new banquet and event hall at the corner of Fourth and Brunswick streets to the public, arguably the crowning achievement of Evans’ life of business endeavors. In covering the grand opening of Minnie’s Hall — it was named after one of Evans’ daughters — the Morning Star dubbed Evans “one of our prominent and energetic colored men.”

Just more than a year later, Evans died at roughly the age of 48 on April 13, 1882, at his residence. A funeral was held the following day at First Colored Baptist Church. In its April 15 issue, the Morning Star reported:

“Allen Evans, whose death was recorded in our last issue, was one of the most prominent colored men in the city. He was owner of considerable property, and was a shrewd business man, being the proprietor of a large store on the corner of Fourth and Brunswick streets, with a hall above it. He was at one time leader of an excellent colored band in this city, and was a man of considerable intelligence. His funeral yesterday was largely attended by the colored people of the city, the colored masons, to which he belonged, escorting the remains to the grave.”

It was the conclusion of an unfortunately brief but busy and accomplished life that included the founding of Wilmington’s first organized base ball team, one of the first endeavors in the state of North Carolina to merge the newfound freedom of African Americans with the burgeoning national pastime.

In Gorée’s story, echoes of Ferguson

The story of semipro Chicago baseball manager Fred Gorée is precisely a story of the harsh realties of African-American life intersecting with the sport of baseball.

It’s also a tale from decades ago that resonates so much today, 90 years later, because of what’s still occurring on a frighteningly high level.

When Gorée was killed Aug. 1, 1925, by two bullets from the gun of a St. Louis County, Mo., deputy constable, during what, on the surface, seemed like a routine traffic stop for speeding, it caused historical ripples that are felt today when, from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore, young African-American men and women are dying either while in police custody or at the end of a law enforcement officer’s gun barrel.

But those ripples have, for nine decades, also run through Fred Gorée’s family — which has roots in Lincoln Parish, La. — and descendants, who to this day believe that, despite what Fred’s death certificate says, he was a black man cut down in cold blood by a white cop.

“My grandfather was murdered by the police,” says Joyce Elmore, one of Fred Gorée’s familial progeny. “He had a very fancy car, and the officer didn’t believe it was his car. [The officer] followed him and told him to get out of the car. They got into an argument because [the officer] treated him very badly, he shot him, then left him for dead in a ditch.

“Then,” she adds, “the police officer took his car and did a little joyriding. He didn’t call for an ambulance or anything. He just killed him.”

Joyce’s description of what happened that night comes second-hand, a tale passed down through her family’s generations.

It also differs wildly from what was reported at the time, at least by the mainstream media, who seemed to fire off articles that parroted the official line coming from the St. Louis County Constable’s Office.

That law-enforcement report had Gorée, in his Buick, was speeding along at 48 miles per hour, then refused to be taken to the police station for 20 hours of detention and questioning. Gorée then allegedly tried to wrest deputy constable Patrick Bennett’s gun from Bennett, a physical scuffle ensued that rolled the pair down an embankment and soon caused two shots from the gun to enter Gorée’s body. He died less than two hours later at a private residence.

Within a mere 24 hours of Fred’s death, an inquest into the killing was conducted, and a grand jury cleared Bennett of any wrongdoing stemming from the incident. The coroner in the case listed “justifiable homicide” on Gorée’s death certificate, essentially writing off Bennett’s actions as self-defense.

But Joyce Elmore tells a very different opinion of her progenitor’s death. In ensuing posts, I’ll try to go into more detail about both Fred Gorée’s life and about his death, but today I’ll just relate the feelings of a woman who never had a chance to meet her grandfather because of what happened on that dark country road near St. Louis more than 90 years ago.

Joyce Elmore is positive her grandfather’s sudden, violent end was shrouded with and soaked in a distinctly racial overtone, one of a white police officer doing what today would be called racial profiling. Missouri, she says, has always had the mindset of a Southern state, and St. Louis that of a Dixie city.

“It was racially motivated,” Joyce says of Fred’s death. “It wasn’t justifiable [homicide] as far as I’m concerned.

“There is no justice,” adds Joyce, who lives in San Jose, Calif. “In Missouri, black people have always been treated like dirt. [Fred] was in the wrong place at the wrong time. They beat him up, shot him and stole his car. It was another racial murder in the South.

“This [social and racial dynamic] goes way back, and it’s continuing, and unless something is done, it’s going to continue. [Law enforcement] has been doing it for so many years. They just play it off.”

Self-defense or whitewashed lynching?

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“Justifiable homicide by a gunshot wound.”

That’s the cause of death listed on Louisiana native and Chicago resident Fred Gorée’s St. Louis County, Mo., death certificate. It was signed on Aug. 3, 1925, with date of death stated as two days prior.

The document also said the determination of the cause of death involved an inquest.

Meanwhile, a jury was clearing the deputy constable involved in the incident of any wrongdoing in the late-night, roadside scuffle that caused the officer to fatally shoot Gorée, who was on his way with his semipro baseball team, the Chicago Independents, to play a reported barnstorming game in St. Charles, Mo., depending on the source.

The news of Gorée’s death practically flew under the radar; the black press, even, failed to report much about an incident that, to this day, has Gorée’s descendants searching for any information about their progenitor’s fate.

Here’s an excerpt of an Associated Press report on the court’s determination:

“Deputy Constable Frank Bennett, 29, was exonerated by a St. Louis County coroner’s jury today [Aug. 3] of any blame for the death of Fred Goree, 35-year-old Chicago Negro whom he shot and killed Saturday night in an altercation over a speeding arrest.

“Bennett testified Goree tried to wrest his revolver from him. Goree was the owner of a Negro baseball team which was to have played in St. Charles, Mo., yesterday afternoon.”

(To clear things up, Gorée wasn’t 35 when he was shot — at least not according to his death certificate, which lists his birth date as Jan. 6, 1901, making him about 24.5 years old at the time.)

But what the African-American media reported was a tad bit different. This is what the Pittsburgh Courier said:

“ST. LOUIS, Mo., Aug. 6 — Fred Foree [sic], manager of a Chicago baseball team, was shot to death at 11:15 o’clock Saturday night after  hand-to-hand struggle with a white officer.

“The struggle followed a heated controversy between the two men when [Frank] Bennett arrested Foree and two companions for speeding at 48 miles an hour.

“Foree objected to being taken to jail to be held for 20 hours.”

Note that the Courier, an influential and popular African-American newspaper, reported the race of the officer, something articles in mainstream media outlets failed to do. In doing so, the Courier clearly insinuated — and quite rightfully so — that the killing might certainly have taken a racial turn.

The Pittsburgh paper’s story also stressed that Gorée asserted himself in refusing to be questioned and held for 20 hours — nearly a full day, which could, to some, seem unreasonable, especially for something as minor as a speeding ticket.

What’s worse, Gorée, who was buried in Lincoln Cemetery near Chicago —Section 23, Lot 17, Row 2 — in what may be an unmarked grave, a situation that’s all too familiar to Negro League historians who routinely come across segregation-era African-American baseball figures who suffer such indignity in death.

(I called Lincoln Cemetery to confirm that Gorée was, in fact, buried there and whether his grave has a headstone. The woman I spoke with said he was at the facility, but she couldn’t say if the burial spot was unmarked. She also couldn’t divulge any further details about the grave, including who owns the plot, etc.)

Which leaves us with this: was Gorée’s death the result of self-defense on behalf of Deputy Bennett, or was it essentially a law-enforcement lynching — one that could have been swept under the rug — at a time when the St. Louis area had, in some ways, a Southern mindset, where African Americans were second-class citizens?

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I was first tipped off to this story by Ron Auther, a fellow Negro Leagues researcher specializing in African-American baseball west of the Rockies and along the West Coast. Ron has a great blog here about those subjects, and it was in researching a story for his specialty that he tripped over a short article in a California newspaper about Gorée’s death.

Ron subsequently wrote this blog post about what he found, and as you can see, it elicited a great deal of feedback from several of Mr. Gorée’s descendants, who expressed both sadness and hope that the mystery surrounding their ancestor could be resolved — and that Fred’s grave can at long last be marked, perhaps by the nationally known Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project.

Details of the incident that claimed Fred Gorée’s life much too soon still remain sketchy, but an Aug. 2, 1925, AP report does shed some light on what happened — or at least the story told by the police. Unfortunately, the archived newspaper in which I found the report has much of the right side of the article folded over, making it tough to decipher the entire context of the story. But here’s what the article reported, more or less (and keep in mind that this dispatch came before the coroner’s jury’s decision to exonerate Bennett):

“Fred Foree [sic], a negro, 35, manager of a Chicago baseball team scheduled to play with [a] St. Charles, Mo., team today, was shot to death late last night by Deputy Constable [?] Bennett of St. Louis County after a hand to hand struggle for the officer’s revolver.

“The struggle followed a heated [?] controversy between the two [?] when Bennett arrested Foree [and] two negro companions for speeding 48 miles an hour on the St. Charles road near here [St. Louis].

“Foree to be taken to [?] and held 20 hours as a suspect. Bennett refused to heed his pleas [?] the negro struck the officer [on the] head with his fist. The officer drew his pistol.

“In the struggle, which rolled [the] men over a six-foot embankment, the negro was shot twice in the stomach. His companion [?] in the automobile under command and assisted in removing Foree [to] the home of a physician, where he died within two hours. An inquest will be held tomorrow. The dead [?] negro and his two companions, Frencher Henry of Chicago and Harold Gaulden of St. Charles [were] on their way to Effingham, Ill., [to] get part of the baseball [team?] stranded there.”

Mr. Gorée’s death certificate states that he died on Pattonville road in St. Ferdinand township in St. Louis County.

Now, the article above doubtlessly only includes the Constable Office’s side of things. But what about the other side, the views of Fred Gorée and his baseball charges about what occurred that fateful night?

In my next post about Fred Gorée, which will hopefully come by the end of the week, will take a look at the man and his life — his roots in Lincoln County, La., his involvement with baseball and, hopefully, his life in Chicago — a life that led up to a tragic, controversial, violent ending on Aug. 1, 1925.

Then, after that, I’ll come back to Mr. Gorée’s death and try to take a closer look at what did happen that night.

No Clowning around in the stands

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Bush Stadium, way back when …

Well, I’m back after a much-too-long hiatus, and I have a couple subjects upon with I’d like to expound and/or report. One is a very serious topic that I’ll try to start tackling tomorrow and over the weekend, but I’ll keep the exact nature of the subject quiet for now. I’m also going to attempt very hard to pull together updates on the situations of both Ducky Davenport here in NOLA and Alexander Albritton in Philly.

But today, a much lighter, even quirky story of a young white Indianapolis teenager combing through a crowd of nothing but black faces …

A couple weeks ago, Chris Rickett, an old friend from my college days at the Indiana Daily Student — he and I, in fact, are bonded by an unforgettable incident that should be well known to those who read this who were in the IDS at the time — messaged me on Facebook and told me about his step father, Phil Nolting.

Phil, as it turns out, spent several summers while a teenage student at Indianapolis’ Arsenal Tech High School in the early 1950s trudging up and down the steep stairs at Indy’s old Bush Stadium, hawking peanuts, Cracker Jack — singular, people, not the plural Jacks! — and beer during baseball season.

Most of the time, Mr. Nolting criss-crossed the stadium aisles at Indianapolis Indians games, when the city’s longstanding minor-league franchise in Organized Baseball did their thing on many a sultry central Indiana night 60-plus years go.

But, Nolting says, when the Indians were out of town on a road trip, Bush Stadium would play host to what has, in historical hindsight, become the city’s most famed hardball team — the Indianapolis Clowns on the Negro Leagues.

And young Phil, along with his brother and a handful of other pals from Arsenal Tech, would ply his adolescent trade for the Funmakers’ home games — that is, when the Clowns weren’t barnstorming like mad for much of the season.

It was, to say the least, an interesting situation for Nolting.

“My and my brother used to joke that we were the only white people out there,” Phil says.
That’s because the first couple years of the 1950s were a very, very heady time in Indianapolis, including when it came to race relations. As Phil noted to me, “Integration was just starting to take place.”

Athletically, Indiana has always been, of course, a basketball-first state, and the early 1950s were huge years in Indianapolis in that regard. This was the era of the famed “Milan Miracle” (the true story on which the movie “Hoosiers” is based), but that was followed by an even more culturally and racially significant event — the hoops team from Indy’s Crispus Attucks High School, led by the Big O, the incomparable Oscar Robertson, became the first all-African-American team to capture the state championship.

That was a watershed moment for sports and race relations in a state that just a quarter-century before had played host to the national KKK headquarters and whose government was quite literally in the hands of the Klan — they were everywhere in Indiana.

And, with the crucial Brown v. Board Supreme Court ruling on segregation still a couple years away, Indianapolis, at the time, could be viewed as walking a tenuous line between being a geographically Northern State but, it many ways, a culturally and socially Southern State.

Into this mix came the Indianapolis Clowns, who weren’t the city’s first great Negro Leagues team — that distinction, aside from squads in the 19th century, would go to the ABCs — but probably its most famous, thanks to their on-field antics and, well, clowning, which mixed extremely well with their genuine hardball acumen.

The Clowns were so good and, therefore, so popular, that Phil Nolting says the Funmakers routinely outdrew the Indians of “Organized Baseball” when they did manage to convene home games at Bush Stadium.

“Back then, the Clowns brought bigger crowds than the Indians,” Phil says. “The stadium was full. The Clowns were really popular, as I recall.”

But, he added, “It was an all-black crowd.”

Which made for a few jarring, or at least unusual, experiences for the white teenager from Arsenal Tech and his buddies roaming the crowd as vendors. But for the most part, things went smoothly for both the kids and the fans.

“We had our problems,” he said, “but really it was fun. This is when integration was still going on, but we never had any problems.”

And because Indianapolis is famous for something else — its auto racing, its 500 and its Brickyard — Nolting says he and his peers would work the crowds at car races, including the Indy 500, then hike down to Bush Stadium that evening for an Indians or Clowns game.

Also significant to Nolting’s tenure as a popcorn and Jack hawker — even though neither he nor many people in the stands knew at the time — was that it coincided with the arrival to the Clowns’ roster of a baby-faced youngster from Alabama named Henry Aaron.

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Phil says he vaguely remembers Aaron’s name being on the roster cards and announced over the loudspeakers, but Nolting was too busy selling his product — which involved having his back to the field much of the time — to pay close attention to the future Major League home run king, or any of the players, for that matter, on both the Clowns and the Indians. That includes the times Satchel Paige, for example, made a stop at Bush Stadium to pitch.

“It’s a shame we didn’t really know who the players were,” Phil says. “You hear a lot about them now, but back then we were working. We couldn’t really see or know who they were.”

As the years have gone by, and as Phil and his buddies reflect on their Bush Stadium experiences — including being thiiiiiiiiis close to Hank Aaron — they do regret a bit the fact that they couldn’t attention more to the games and players themselves.
But he says one of his friends as since become an avid reader of baseball history, including the Negro Leagues, and he and Nolting conversed quite frequently about their rich experiences.

“My buddy and I from back then, we’d talk often about it,” Phil says. He reads a lot about the Negro Leagues, because its become quite a popular topic to study.”

It certainly has.

Batavia’s Baker

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That above is the large metal plaque at Batavia’s Dwyer Stadium in upstate New York honoring Gene Baker, who enjoyed two stints as the manager of the Batavia Pirates, Pittsburgh’s then-Class D affiliate.

Today, the short-season A team occupying Dwyer is the Batavia Muckdogs, an affiliate of the Miami Marlins (funnily enough, just like the New Orleans Zephyrs). But the Muckdogs make sure to honor Baker for what he accomplished in Batavia more than a half-century ago.

I snapped that picture while my friend Mike and I were taking in a ‘Dogs game while I was visiting family and pals in Rochester last month. Before reading that sign, I had no idea what a huge role Batavia, and Baker, played in the complete integration of Organized Baseball.

As a second baseman-turned-utility-infielder, Baker integrated the Chicago Cubs along with a guy named Ernie Banks in 1953. However, despite an All-Star nod in 1955 and a World Series ring, Baker’s playing career didn’t go nearly as well as his double-play mate and future Hall of Famer, thanks largely to a crippling knee injury. He finished his playing days with the Pirates in the early 1960s. A great SABR Bio Project essay on Baker’s playing days appears here.

However, the Bucs kept their promise to find a place for Baker within their organization after he retired as a player, and he was named manager of the Batavia Pirates for the 1961 season.

With that move, the Pirates and Baker, according to numerous opinions and sources, made history as Baker became the first African-American manager anywhere in American Organized Baseball. While some pundits feel, for example, that Nate Moreland actually earned that distinction before Baker did by helming the Calexico franchise in the Arizona-New Mexico League, Calexico was an independently-owned franchise that had no Major-League affiliate

Thus, in historical hindsight, many observers and researchers do believe, in fact, that Baker was the first to break that barrier, and he did it in Batavia, about a 45-minute drive from my hometown of Rochester. Stated the June 28, 1961, issue of The Sporting News:

“The Pirates, finding a new job for Gene Baker after dropping him from their active list, sent the infielder to Batavia (NYP) as manager, June 19. The 35-year-old veteran, who broke into the major leagues in 1953, is the most prominent Negro to be given a managerial post. …

“In making the appointment, General Manager Joe L. Brown said, ‘Gene has been most valuable to us in the past as a player, instructor and scout. He is a fine gentleman with outstanding baseball experience and knowledge. We know he will do a fine job in the managerial field.'”

Count legendary Baltimore Afro-American columnist Sam Lacy among those who believed Baker blazed trails in Batavia. Lacy interviewed Baker by phone in late June 1961, shortly after Baker, a native of Davenport, Iowa, arrived in the small, upstate New York city. In Lacy’s subsequent July 1 article, Baker painted a very grateful and optimistic picture. Stated the new skipper:

“‘This could be the beginning of a brand new era in baseball.

“‘I can only hope that I can do the job that is expected of me. It means so much to all concerned. …

“‘This is a wonderful opportunity. Not only for me but for other fellows more deserving than I. If I can only deliver for them, it will mean so much to the colored player and to baseball in general.

“‘The reception I got Monday night was heartwarming. Fans and players alike  wished me well and pledged their full cooperation. Nothing like it has ever happened to me before.

“‘The Pittsburgh organization is tremendous. It has given me every opportunity to progress.

“‘With God’s help, I hope to vindicate their judgment. And if I do, I’m sure there’ll be other teams to follow suit — just as they have done in other respects.”

But, as Lacy pointed out, the task ahead of him certainly wouldn’t be easy — at the time, Batavia was floundering in seventh place. But Baker assured the scribe that with a little tinkering and the encouraging of the squad’s multiple young, talented prospects, the B-Pirates could stabilize the ship and even climb into the top four in the New York-Penn League.

Lacy wasn’t the only sports scribe who took notice of Baker’s appointment to the B-Pirates — the news traveled to Norfolk, Va., where New Journal and Guide columnist Cal Jacox hailed the development under the headline, “Progress Continues In Baseball”:

“With the appointment last week of Gene Baker as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Class D farm club at Batavia, N.Y., organized baseball opened a new area of employment for colored players who have completed their major league careers.

“For years, there has been speculation as to when a colored ex-big leaguer would become a full-time pilot. … [T]he names of Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella were prominent in the managerial sweepstakes. … But fate decreed otherwise and, instead, Baker has the distinction of being the first former major leaguer to get the call. …

“Ever since 1947, organized baseball has been moving forward in its relationship with the colored players … They’re seeing action in probably all of its leagues … Their play is outstanding and their presence on the field is accepted by the fans even in the deepest Dixie … In tapping Baker for the pilot’s post the management of the Pittsburgh Pirates thus continued the steady march of progress that has, over the years, become a trademark of the national pastime.”

Back in upstate New York, Batavia seemed to welcome Baker with open arms, as a July 1, 1961, Afro-American brief reported:

“‘We welcome Gene Baker to our town and our club,’ declared Norris T. Dwyer, president and general manager of the Batavia Pirates …

“Dwyer assured the AFRO that ‘everything will be done to make him comfortable and to assist him in the job he’s attempting to do. No one in this office doubts that a young man of his character and experience will succeed.’

“On the subject of his new manager’s race, Dwyer said, ‘Gene is a baseball man. That’s all we want here.”

The Bucs management’s faith in Baker paid off, and big-time — within about two and a half months, Batavia climbed from seventh in the NY-Penn League to second, and they made the league playoffs. Late in the season, Baker even shrugged off his bum knee and manned third base in a bunch of games for the B-Bucs in their run to the league finals.

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Once again, news hound Lacy was all over the story; in a Sept. 2, 1961, article in the Afro, the journalist expounded on Baker’s achievements in upstate New York:

“Baker’s success has been phenomenal. And the front office of the world champions at Pittsburgh are jubilant.

“‘We are elated over Gene’s good work,’ declared Bob Clements, Buccaneer scout in charge of the New York area. ‘Mr. Brown (owner Joe L. Brown) was with me in Jamestown (NY) when the team played there last week. And he was greatly pleased with the team’s progress under Baker.'”

Lacy also interviewed Baker himself, who was effusive in his comments to the sportswriter:

“Naturally, I’m happy about [the team’s success]. But the praise shouldn’t go to me alone. The team did it.

“We started hitting and the pitching firmed up for us. … We just started climbing, and that’s all.”

Gene Baker’s achievements rightfully earned him a promotion in 1962, with the big-league Bucs moved him up to the Triple-A Columbus Jets, where he became the first African-American coach in Organized Baseball. He also did a little playing for the Jets, although he struggled a bit when he did so.

In ’63, Baker moved up again, becoming a coach for the big-league club, becoming the second African American to break that barrier, after the legendary Buck O’Neil. In fact, in September of that season, Baker even, albeit briefly, became the first black man to manage a major-league team when Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh and coach Frank Oceak got tossed from a game against the Dodgers.

However, for reasons that are somewhat unclear, Baker was bumped back down to Batavia for the 1964 season, but after that he served as a Pirates scout for 23 years.

Baker eventually retired to his hometown of Davenport, where he died in 1999 at the age of 74 and, because of his meritorious Naval service during World War II, was buried in Rock Island National Cemetery.

There probably remains debate as to whether Gene Baker was, in fact, the first African American to manage a team in organized baseball; a few other candidates do exist, such as Moreland, but much of the discussion involves the parsing of details and situations at the time.

But there are three facts that are quite clear about Baker. One, he was the first former African-American big leaguer to manage a team in Organized Baseball; two, he achieved unqualified success during that 1961 season; and three, partially as a result of No. 2, Baker remains beloved in Batavia, including by the current Muckdogs, as the plaque at the top of this post displays.