I just finished an article for Discover Maine magazine about a game played in 1949 between the Boston Colored Giants, a barnstorming Negro League team based in the Hub that had existed since the 1920s, and the Goodall-Sanfords, a semipro team from Sanford, a textile mill town in York County, Maine.
The details of the game, for the purposes of this blog post, really aren’t that important, other than it was halted after seven innings because of rain with the Giants up, 6-3.
What I’d like to focus on a bit is the players on the Boston Colored Giants’ roster — or, rather, one player in particular, catcher Burlin White.
White was the catching half of the Giants’ celebrated, long-running battery that featured the legendary Cannonball Will Jackman on the mound. While Jackman himself is a fascinating subject — a Texas native one of the acknowledged greatest hurlers in blackball history who also chose to stay out of the national limelight in favor of becoming a New England luminary — his story, especially in in the last couple decades, has gradually become more well known.
But I can say that, at least for me, Burlin White presents unchartered waters. While a decent amount has been written about him, such as on Gary Ashwill’s Agate Type blog here, I embarrassingly hadn’t heard of Burlin White until beginning the Discover Maine article, an ignorance I’m a bit ashamed of.
I was so unaware of White’s story that this line in an article from the June 4, 1949, Portland Press Herald describing the upcoming Giants-Sanford contest threw me for a loop:
“The famed battery of Will Jackman and Burleigh White will be with the visitors in this first appearance of the season at the local park.”
When I read that archived article, I thought I should delve into the background of this “Burleigh White” fellow to fill out the magazine article a bit. But when I did some archive and online searches for that moniker, I pretty much came up empty.
That, naturally, puzzled me a wee bit. If this pitching-catching combo had indeed been “famed,” I pondered, then why can’t I find anything about the receiving part of the duo?
It took me a while and more than a little consternation (and an audible cuss word here and there) to trip across White’s real name and, after that, his background and career.
Burlin White — per his World War I and World War II draft cards, his Social Security records and his military file — was born on Feb. 5, 1895. The question, though, is where he was born …
Some records, including Census sheets, his WWI draft card and Seamheads — not to mention the always trusty Wikipedia (some sarcasm there) — assert that White was birthed in Richmond, Va.
However, I think that’s incorrect.
Why? ’Cause I’m an adopted Hoosier, gosh durn it!
The 1930 U.S. Census indicates that White (as well as both his parents) was born in Indiana, and his WWII draft card states that he was from Richmond, Ind.
Richmond, Ind., is a small city in the eastern part of the Hoosier State, right on the Ohio state line. Richmond, Ind., is home to the Indiana University-East campus, as well as the Indiana Football Hall of Fame. (From what I recall, it’s also the hometown of my college buddy Doug Haller, who worked at the Indiana Daily Student with me, where we both covered the IU football team’s 1993 season.)
Buttressing this argument is the fact that just about every biography — not to mention much of the early press coverage of White’s baseball journey — has him starting his paid baseball career with the West Baden Sprudels, a famed semipro spa team based in French Lick, Ind., in the rolling hills of southern Indiana. (Today, French Lick is probably best known as Larry Bird’s hometown.)
It then makes more sense that the scrappy, young White made the journey to French Lick from Richmond, Ind., than from Virginia.
Regardless, by 1915, White had joined the Sprudels; his name starts popping up in a few box scores from the team’s barnstorming games across the Indiana countryside. However, it doesn’t seem like he was the squad’s everyday catcher — he wasn’t in the lineup for most of the West Badens’ matches with the vaunted Indianapolis ABCs, for example, and he rarely was on the receiving end of pitches from the squad’s star chucker, Steel Arm Johnny Taylor.
But someone took notice, though — from West Baden, White moved up to the blackball big time when he signed on with the Chicago Union Giants in 1916 and the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants the next year.
His baseball career was interrupted briefly for service in the Army in 1918, first at Camp Dix in Ohio, then on the Western front in France with the 349th Colored Regiment. He was eventually promoted to sergeant of an artillery company, according to this article from the Logansport Pharos-Tribune upon his discharge in early 1919
By then, he was already making a name for himself as a catcher, a fact reflected by the large photo of him in the may 4, 1918, issue of the Chicago Defender that was accompanied by this caption:
“Peppery backstop of the Atlantic City Bacharachs, formerly with the Chicago Union Giants and the West Baden Sprudels, and who last year played a stellar game with the Bacharach nine, was called to the colors on April 25. …”
Once discharged from the military after the end of the war, White resumed his career with several semipro and professional Negro Leagues teams, often with semipro and barnstorming teams, but also with top-level organizations like the Bacharachs, the New York Lincoln Giants and the Harrisburg Giants.
In 1924, for example, White signed on with a team based in Buffalo, N.Y., named the Steel City Giants, which the Philadelphia Tribune termed a “newly organized ball club, owned by C.R. Estill of Lackawanna district … [who] have caused a sensation in recent games with the fastest semi-pro teams in the western portion of the state.”
As the 1920s wore on, White apparently both retained his connection to Indiana and began his long partnership with Will Jackman, with whom he teamed early on when the two were both playing winter resort ball in Florida. Per the April 18, 1925, Pittsburgh Courier:
“Burlin White, one of the most sensational players of the Palm Beach season, writes from West Baden, Ind., that he is there conditioning for the coming season.
“He writes that he would like to hear from managers desiring a first-class catcher.”
White continued into the 1930s, when he, among other career moves, hitched up with the Cuban East Stars and, more importantly, launched his second baseball life as a manager.
That includes signing on for the dual role with the Boston Royal Giants, one of the forerunners of the Boston Colored Giants. Per the Baltimore Afro-American in August 1937:
“Burlin White, manager of the Boston Royal Giants, issued a call this week for two pitchers, a catcher, two infielders, a shortstop and a third baseman.
“Players are requested to write Mr. White at 365 Northampton Street, Boston. The Giants are scheduled to begin a Southern tour September 15.”
As that brief article indicated, by the late 1930s White had already settled in the Boston area, where he rented an apartment in the largely African-American neighborhood around Northampton Street, re-teamed with Cannonball Jackman and helmed the Royal/Colored Giants into the 1940s.
White even helped guide — or almost did — that aggregation into a new but eventually scrubbed circuit coined the Negro Major Baseball League of America.
I hope to eventually look more closely at this fascinating but soon terminated league itself one of these days, but for now I’ll just report that, as described by the press in spring 1942 — when White was nearing 50 years old — the NMBLA included (or would have, had it lived), the following franchises: the Cincinnati Clowns, Chicago Brown Bombers, Detroit Black Sox, Baltimore Black Orioles, Minneapolis-St. Paul Gophers and Boston Royal Giants.
As originally planned, the nascent league would have had Major R.P. Jackson, former Negro American League president and long-time member of the Chicago City Council, as president, and former collegiate football star and then-current newspaper editor Fritz Pollard Sr. as VP.
It seems as if the Cincy Clowns — formerly called the Ethiopian Clowns — were pegged early on as the favorites for the NMBLA’s fledgling 1942 campaign. However, Burlin White, as the skipper of the Boston Royals, begged to differ, according to a May ’42 African-American wire service article that quoted him as asserting:
“The consensus seems to be the Cincinnati Clowns have the championship all but stowed away, with the Chicago Brown Bombers figured for the runner-up spot. Well, all I can say is that we’ve got a mighty fine ball club in the process of making for Boston and no one’s going to find us a pushover.”
As things played out, the new league obviously never really got off the ground, and I hope to look into the NMBLA’s fleeting history and perfunctory demise at some point on this blog.
But for now, it’s pretty impressive that, regardless of how harebrained the idea might have been, Burlin White (and, by extension, the Boston Royal Giants) played a decent-sized role in the plans for a whole new Negro League, a fact that speaks to how respected and well regarded White had become as a player, manager and executive in the world of African-American baseball.
White’s active career in the American pastime continued for a few more years — as stated above, White was part of the Colored Giants unit that came to Sanford, Maine, in June 1949 when White was well over 50 — before he retired to suburban life in suburban Massachusetts, where he served as an ambassador for the Negro Leagues and segregation-era African-American baseball, including suiting up for old-timers’ games.
Burlin White died in 1971 in Bedford, Mass., when his legacy as a sturdy, top-notch (albeit largely journeyman) catcher-manager was secure. White’s name might not be the most spoken or well known name when it comes to Negro Leagues history, but it’s also undoubtedly one of the most esteemed and plentiful in blackball annals.