Baseball bloodlines in Birmingham

IMG_3304

That most handsome gentleman next to that goof in the glasses is Mr. Henry Elmore.

Well, today didn’t go quite as planned, but it was still a dandy of a day. I unfortunately left NOLA a lot later than I wanted to, so I didn’t get to Birmingham until after 3 p.m., which meant I missed most of the scheduled events for the day. That was not the best, to be sure.

But once I got to the hotel, I immediately knew it was a very good call to come on up for the players reunion, the Rickwood Classic and a tour of the new Negro Southern League Museum. When I was checking in, there were a few gentlemen sitting in the lobby shooting the breeze, and of course I had to be obnoxiously nosy and barge my way into the conversation.

I introduced myself to them, by saying I was a journalist and researcher covering the event, and the most outgoing — the word “outgoing” is a bit of an understatement — stood up, stuck out his hand to shake and said, “I’m Lonnie Harris, but the man you want to ask any questions to is him.”

Lonnie — an NYC native whose nickname, I discovered, was Showboat — sports a thick beard, a full head of hair, a baseball cap and big, Bono-type sunglasses. His introduction and comment caught me a little off guard, but in a very, very good way. “I gotta talk to this guy,” I thought. Lonnie suited up for the Birmingham Black Barons and Memphis Red Sox in the 1950s. But more on that to come …

But Lionel insisted I chat with the whom to whom he referred me, another member of the small contingent named Reggie Howard, a South Bend, Ind., native who played most memorably with the legendary Indianapolis Clowns under (in)famous owner Syd Pollock.

I traded a couple thoughts with Reggie before he, unprompted pulled out a mint condition, protected copy of a baseball card of him, asked me again for my name, and signed the card for me!

IMG_3315

Later in the evening, I was able to catch up with Mr. Howard while he was recalling days gone by with a teammate, Gil Black, another native of NYC who grew up in Connecticut. Reggie introduced me to Gil, and the two then proceeded to burst forth with a dizzying slew of stories from their days together with the Clowns — yep, Gil also donned his spikes for Mr. Pollock.

After a while, their banter reached a fever pitch of friendly jibes and bragging, with tall tales just flooding out in a rapid-fire procession. It was so fast and furious that I eventually gave up scribbling their words down with my wholly inadequate pen and notebook. (Yes, I stubbornly refuse to use a recorder. Maybe it’s the old-time Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy in me.)

So, needless to say, more on the tales of Brothers Black and Howard later. …

IMG_3310

Former Indy Clowns Reginald Howard and Gilbert Black

I also had a chance to do quick intros with Jaycee Casselberry and Yogi Cortez (about whom I talked in my previous post), but I’ll end with a short buy buoyant chat I had with former infielder Henry Elmore, a quiet, understated guy from Birmingham who played with the Black Barons and the Philadelphia Stars.

Sporting a blue cap adorned with the logos of practically all of the vintage blackball teams, Mr. Elmore told me that he was greatly inspired to play baseball by his uncle, Mobile native Jim “Shifty” West, who himself played in the Negro Leagues with a whole bunch of teams as a dependable infielder.

“He could play,” Henry, who’s 74 years old as of this writing, said of his uncle with pride. “He was the best first baseman in the Negro Leagues.”

Henry said West inspired him in both character and sports.

“He taught me how to act, how to be respectable, and how to play baseball,” Henry said.

Henry was a solid enough player to earn bids to two East-West All-Star games (in Chicago and New York), and later played in the talent-rich Birmingham industrial leagues after moving back home. He competed locally for about 10 more years before hanging up his spikes.

I asked him what his favorite memories of his playing days were. It would be a tough query for anybody, and it was for him.

“I have so many,” he said with a grin.

He added, “I just love baseball.”

‘Nuff said.

More tomorrow …

A players reunion, a personal first

-432fa7a61d798411

Negro Southern League Museum

If all goes as planned, this afternoon I’ll arrive in Birmingham to attend my first Negro Leaguers reunion in that city. Although this will be the seventh year for the annual event, it’ll be my first time attending, and I’m pretty hyped up.

I was kind of encouraged to go by Cam Perron, a recent Tulane graduate who’s gained national recognition for his efforts to garner recognition and financial help for former blackball players and managers.

I’ll only be there two days and one night, and it should be a packed two days as well. I’m gonna try to get up and head out of Gretna by 7 a.m. at the latest so I can pull into Birmingham by noon or so for a players luncheon at Lawson State Community College, then head to the brand new Negro Southern League Museum for a tour, followed by a cookout/reception.

Wednesday brings a breakfast, then the 21st annual Rickwood Classic at famous Rickwood Field, the country’s oldest baseball park still in use. That’ll be a contest between the Double-A Birmingham Barons and Chattanooga Lookouts at noon. Then I make the drive back to NOLA to process all the cool stuff I’ll undoubtedly see.

Sunday I chatted on the phone with Cam, who just graduated from TU and headed home to the Boston area before flying back to Birmingham today. He’s been attending the reunion since 2010. In fact, he’s instrumental in putting it together and inviting many of the players.

rwood5

Rickwood Field

Cam is an understated, subdued guy, which belies his passion for working to bring these great men and women into the limelight and to bring them together to enjoy each other’s company and reminisce about their glory days at the reunion.

“You’re just surrounded by these men,” Cam said. “They’re just chatting and talking. It’s a good time to see everyone. They’re all happy to be getting recognition. A lot of them didn’t play together, but they share the same experiences.”

The reunion is the brainchild of Dr. Layton Revel, the founder of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research and the moving force behind the new museum in downtown Birmingham.

Dr. Revel said this’ll be the eighth reunion in seven years, and between 75 and 100 are scheduled to attend this year’s siesta, with about 30-40 are arriving from out of town. Fifteen to 20 played in the top Negro Leagues, while several dozen mainly starred in the Birmingham industrial leagues, which thrived for decades in the Alabama city and also figure prominently in the new museum, which just opened to the public. (I’ll try to write more about the museum over the next couple days.)

“It’s the largest reunion of Negro League players in the country,” Dr. Revel said. “It will be a big deal.”

A key facet of the reunion is that every event is open to the public and free of charge. The headquarters for events is the La Quinta hotel in the Homewood neighborhood.

“[The players] really appreciate the fact that folks are remembering what they did so long after they played,” Dr. Revel said. “It’s meaningful for them that people are thinking about then 50 or 60 years later, that people feel what they did was important.”

Dr. Revel said, however, that every edition of the reunion mixes in a bit of sadness — every year, he said, more and more of these great men and women pass away as the years inevitable pass. But those who remain and who attend the reunions each year take the gatherings as a chance to fondly remember their comrades and heroes.

“It’s a very bittersweet time,” he said.

This year’s reunion will also include the attendance of several longtime, much honored researchers, such as Larry Lester and Wayne Stivers.

All in all, I’ll be very grateful and thrilled to join all of these great people at what promises to be a great time.

I had a chance to check out a few of the gentlemen who’ll be making the trip to the La Quinta and Birmingham. One is Gerald Sazon of New Orleans, whom I visited a few weeks ago in a beautiful new retirement home that was built after the neighborhood emerged from Katrina.

We chatted for a while, and Gerald, a pitcher, regaled me with several tales from his days on the local and national blackball scenes. The best one was his story about how the great and mysterious Robert “Black Diamond” Pipkin put the jump on his screwball — he’d poke holes in the ball with a safety pin.

Another baseball veteran who’ll be attending the reunion is James Cobbin of Youngstown, Ohio. Cobbin graduated from North High School in 1952 and attended Allen University in South Carolina as well as Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.

In early 1955, Cobbin signed with the Cincinnati Reds as a 19-year-old infielder/outfielder. The Cleveland Call and Post stated that Cobbin “will be given a thorough tryout at both [positions] when he reports for practice at the rookie training camp in Douglas, Ga.” [It should be noted that at the time, Cincy’s name was technically the Redlegs; the team changed their moniker to distance themselves from communism during the Red Scare.]

17343943-mmmain

However, by that point, Cobbin’s career was already in ascendency — a few months earlier, he had been signed by the Orioles, as the Call and Post reported in October 1954:

“Cobbin … has been playing baseball since he was as tall as a baseball bat. His regular position is shortstop. In high school Cobbin played on the regular team, and during the summer he played with the class ‘B’ and class ‘AA’ teams. …

“At Barberton, Ohio, where the [Orioles] scout gave him his three day workout, he was told that he had been under close watch ever since 1950, and since signing a contract, he is to report to the Baltimore Orioles’ training camp at the beginning of spring training.”

It also struck me that several of the players scheduled to be at the reunion played for the Indianapolis Clowns during the mid- to late-1950s. At that point the organized Negro Leagues were in their death throes, with integration quickly sapping both the quality of and need for African-American blackball.

newscan0050

James Cobbin (from Center for Negro League Baseball Research)

It wasn’t just players, though, who signed up with the Clowns. Another old timer scheduled to be in Birmingham this weekend is Yori Cortez, a contortionist brought on board in summer 1959 to dazzle crowds with his antics: Reported the Atlanta Daily World:

“Yogi Cortez, a supernatural spinner of Hindu acrobatics, is the newest star addition to the Indianapolis Clowns 30th Anniversary game and funshow.

“Yogi flew north two weeks ago to join the champions of Negro ball and diamond wizardry … Far from a rookie in the art of twisting himself into a pretzel of figure eight, he was nevertheless a ‘rookie sensation’ in his initial start in a Clowns uniform.

“The 4,000 fans present gave him a rousing ovation. One critic observed: ‘Yogi is unbelievable. The feats he performs are fantastic. His joining the Clowns means one more stellar performance.’

“Yogi was a victim of dread polio when he was young. Determined to overcome the handicap, he did special exercises that not only restored life to his affected limbs, but also gave unbelievable control.

“Yogi can wrap his legs around his neck like a pretzel and scratch his ears; he can lock them completely around his body and walk, or run, on his hands; and last but far from least he can double up like a frog and bound across the field with fantastic speed.

“Yogi has always wanted to join the Clowns, and General Manager Syd Pollack, who has never sacrificed money to bring baseball fans the very best in entertainment, was quick to recognize Cortez’s ability. He signed him at once to a ‘very satisfactory’ four-figure contract.”

OK, I’m off to throw some clothes in a bag and head to Alabama. Like I said, I’m very much looking forward to this — it promises to be a very fun time, and I’ll post as much as I can over the next few days!

 

 

Busy month in Central PA

eagles rap dixon

Harrisburg icon Rap Dixon

Here’s another great guest column for y’all, written by my SABR friend and Malloy conference roomie Ted Knorr, who’s been the leading light in remembering and honoring the memory of the great Negro Leagues players and teams from central and southern Pennsylvania. In this column, Ted details his busy slate of activities happening this month through June …

It is with great pride and appreciation that I discuss these three events — the Atlantic League‘s York Revolution’s 10th annual Negro League Night, the AL’s Lancaster Barnstormers’ 12th annual Negro League Night, and the Eastern League‘s Harrisburg Senators’ 20th annual Negro League Commemorative Night. I, with the immediate and continued cooperation of the three local minor league baseball clubs, founded all three tributes and have attended almost all of them — now 42 — annual events over the years.

York’s celebration on May 14 consisted of just me with a small exhibit, but it was fun and memorable for me and the dozens of fans who stopped by to talk and discuss segregated baseball from a long time ago.

369_Santander_Stadium_from_behind_home_plate

PeoplesBank Stadium in York

The night was made more special since the previous month at PeoplesBank Stadium, I had participated in a panel discussion on Jackie Robinson leading up to local PBS channel WITF’s showing of Ken Burns’ two-night, four-hour documentary about Robinson, so a lot of the York fans knew me, which made conversations more meaningful.

Harrisburg’s event came next, just this Tuesday at FNB Field, and it is always a very nice event. This year was no different, as we honored the great Harrisburg Giants outfield of 1924-27 — left fielder Fats Jenkins, center fielder Oscar Charleston and right fielder Rap Dixon.

I strongly believe that lineup is the greatest outfield of the Negro Leagues, as it is the only one of more than a one-year tenure that included three of the top dozen Negro League outfielders as designated by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

jenkinsFats

Fats Jenkins

Further, with a four-year tenure, it is one of only about a dozen and a half professional outfields of any league or era that remained intact for four or more years. Among the others are the 1920s Murderer’s Row Yankees, the all-.400 outfield of the 1890s Phillies, and the two longest tenured — Speaker, Hooper and Lewis of the 1912-17 Red Sox and the 1957-62 Pirates slate of Clemente, Skinner and Virdon.

In addition to the honorees in Harrisburg this week, the surviving members of the 1954 Harrisburg Giants of the Eastern Negro League were introduced. This is a special and very unique team in that it was fully integrated with about a third of the team being white.

Lancaster’s Negro Leagues Night will complete the celebration trifecta on May 31 at 7 p.m. at  Clipper Magazine Stadium with the team’s annual Triple Play. This year’s festivities promise big fun, the least of which will be my Negro League exhibit.

The big event at Lancaster this year will be the Barney Ewell bobblehead giveaway. Ewell was a contemporary of — and just as fast as — Hall of Fame speedster Cool Papa Bell and the Negro League stars of the ’30s and ’40s. Ewell was a world-class sprinter who missed the 1940 and ’44 Olympics (as did Jackie Robinson) due to World War II. His bobblehead is going to be a great and valuable collector’s item, and it will be worth the trip if you are in the Mid-Atlantic area. Gates open at 6 p.m.

And speaking of the Mid-Atlantic region, if you want a nice Memorial Day Weekend event, consider historic Midland Cemetery on May 28 at 12:30 pm., when I will offer a few comments on African-American players who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the country.

banner-1

Midland Cemetery near Steelton is a small, beautiful African-American cemetery and is the final resting place for USCT troops, Buffalo Soldiers, veterans of WWI and II, and one Negro League baseball player — Steelton native Herbert “Rap” Dixon. After the ceremony I will have a small exhibit at Rap’s gravesite. It truly is a great spot, and anyone who travels will be rewarded with a brief tour of Rap’s home, school and ballpark, all of which are located near his final resting place. (If you might make it out, let me know at papabell@aol.com.

The last event on the schedule is a humbling one. On Saturday, June 11, I will be accepting a plaque and making brief comments on behalf of the great Oscar Charleston on the occasion of his induction into the Capital Area Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. Charlie lived in Harrisburg in the Twenties and early Thirties and played for the Harrisburg Giants for four spectacular prime years.

Andy Cooper Texas update

Head & shoulders posed portrait of newly inducted Hall of Famer, Andy Cooper.  Cooper is often ranked 2nd only to Bill Foster among the Negro Leagues left-handed pitchers.  Image is cropped from 1920 Detroit Stars 2442.89 PD

I’ve got a very encouraging update on the status of legendary pitcher Andy Cooper, a Waco native and National Baseball Hall of Famer. In this post, I reported how Cooper is inexplicably not a member of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, and in this post I delved into Cooper’s roots in Waco and the Lone Star State.

I just learned that Cooper is, in fact, on the ballot for the TSHOF’s 2016 induction class! Here’s an email I received Friday from TSHOF Vice President Jay Black:

“Mr. Cooper’s bio will be in the nomination notebook at our annual selection committee meeting on June 7. While I am hoping that Mr. Cooper is voted into the TSHOF, I also realize that it is a difficult process because we have so many nominees and only 12 slots on the veterans ballot. I think that Andy Cooper is well qualified and deserving to be included in the TSHOF.”

Right now I’m working on an article about Cooper’s Texas roots and the 75th anniversary of his death, I really can’t proactively urge or encourage people to support Cooper’s possible TSHOF induction, but if you do want to do so, here is a link to the TSHOF’s selection committee Web page, with emails for many of the committee members.

I’ll try to stay current on the process — June 7 is just more than two weeks away, so we’ll see what happens …

Cannonball Jackman, Burlin White and Sanford, Maine

White,Burlin

Burlin White

I’ve been hip deep in article deadlines during the last couple weeks, and I have a couple more next week, so lengthy blog posts might be slim for a while. I do, however, have a few “newsy” items I’d like to post next week, so we’ll see.

In the meantime, here’s another article from my archives that I wrote for a magazine but never got published. (The magazine staff seems a bit harried and boggled, so it’s OK) This piece is about two famous Negro Leaguers and a mid-sized mill town in 1940s Sanford, Maine. I’ve always been interested in blackball in Maine because my grandparents live in Millinocket, which is a town in central Maine that’s surrounded by thick forests.

So here’s an entry along those lines. Keep in mind that this piece was originally written for publication in a general-interest magazine, so it’s a little different style-wise than my usual posts. Anyway, enjoy!

By the time pitcher Will Jackman and catcher Burlin White arrived in Sanford, Maine, in June 1949, they were each roughly 54 years old, although Jackman’s exact age was always notoriously hard to pin down.

When they pulled into the thriving York County industrial hamlet, Jackman and White were members of the Boston Colored Giants Negro Leagues baseball team, a barnstorming, African-American aggregation that had been existence 1923 and had, over the years, gone by different names as varied as the Quaker Giants, the Philadelphia Giants and the Boston Royal Giants. (The two Pennsylvania-themed appellations were the result of a common trend among segregation era black sports teams to name themselves based on marketing purposes.)

During its roughly quarter-year existence, the squad’s roster had seen dozens of players come and go, most of them journeymen who were hustling for a paycheck and who worked “straight” jobs on off-days and during the offseason.

Many of them had careers that amounted to, essentially, minor footnotes in the annals of baseball history, not only because they weren’t star players, but also because life in the Negro Leagues was often dealt in the shadows of the game and of society, thanks to the prejudice and lack of fairness inherent in a segregated country.

But Jackman and White … They were different. They weren’t just scribbles on a lineup card.
They were stars. Individually and as a duo, they were talented enough, persistent enough and self-marketed enough that their names were known all over New England. They were traveling attractions whose renown was cloaked in mythos and filled with tales — often tall ones — of the exploits and accomplishments achieved across more than three decades in the game.

“From the early 1920’s through 1950, Jackman and White formed the most popular battery in New England,” says Negro Leagues scholar and author Bijan C. Bayne, who has extensively studied blackball in both Boston and the rest of New England. He added:

“The friends faced industrial and factory teams, Boston Park League opponents, former and contemporary major league pitchers, college athletes, and town clubs from Maine to Massachusetts, and at least one summer in Nova Scotia. They were well regarded, celebrated by media, and long recalled by spectators.”

The Texas-born Jackman was an especially hot commodity, a fireball-flinging pitcher with prodigious talent who never quite made a big splash on the national Negro Leagues scene but who instead chose to be a big fish in a smaller pond, the toast of New England, a hardball nomad whose legend has, in historical perspective, made him one of the most fascinating but most elusive figures in the chronicles of the American pastime.

Wrote the late Dick Thompson, an award-winning historian and member of the Society for American Baseball Research:

“Today … Jackman has been relegated to the historical ‘who?’ pile. Despite being named in the famous 1952 Pittsburgh Courier player-voted poll of the all-time great Negro League players and years of touting by the mainstream white press of New England, where he barnstormed for nearly 30 years, Jackman’s name remains unrecognizable to all but the most astute black baseball historians.”

But, at the time and throughout his career, Jackman was in such rabid demand in his adopted stomping grounds of New England that he often played for otherwise all-white teams, and many contemporaries and historians consider him comparable to the legendary Satchel Paige, the first Negro Leaguer to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Jackman’s influence has been so momentous that The Cannonball Foundation, a Millis, Mass.-based non-profit organization created in 2009 to create and enhance educational opportunities and character development for young athletes and citizens across New England.

The values of the Cannonball Foundation are based on Jackman’s own personality and dedication to his sport and his character and are codified in what the foundation calls “the Cannonball Way,” according to its Web site:

“A person modeling the Cannonball Way is a person who is: hungry to learn, sprinting through the finish line, completing every duty, task or job started. The Cannonball Way recognizes compassion as a sign of strength and courage, not weakness. As a community, those living according to the Cannonball Way will create a culture of collaboration. Together, we achieve more.”

Of course, Burlin White was no slouch, either. Born in Richmond, Ind., in 1895, White first donned the catcher’s mask professionally in the 1910s for the famed southern Indiana spa team, the West Baden Sprudels, before moving onto the big time with the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants.

By 1918, he was eliciting kudos from the national black press, garnering, for example, a large photo and caption in a May 4, 1918, issue of the Chicago Defender. After a stint in the Army during World War I, White returned to the diamond, where he quickly regained his popularity as a backstop and as a manager, helming the Steel City Giants of Buffalo, N.Y., and even the Boston Royal/Colored Giants by the 1930s.

will-cannonball-jackman

Cannonball Jackman

Thus, given the fame of both Jackman and White, it’s no surprise that towns across the Maine landscape queued up to solicit the duo’s fame and star power.

And in June 1949, one of those lucky burgs was Sanford, where residents were eager to assembled their best hardball talent to furnish the famous Boston Colored Giants — with the illustrious combo of Jackman and White — with solid opposition.

By the time their fame train pulled into Sanford, the Colored Giants’ 1949 season had been underway for about a month, beginning with contests in and around the Boston area and proceeding through Brooklyn for a clash with fellow Negro Leaguers the Bushwicks, then to Portsmouth, N.H., where they topped the Maher Club 5-4.

So the Colored Giants arrived in Sanford loose, trimmed and ready for the local boys. The encounter was slated for June 5 at Sanford’s Goodall Stadium, which had been built in 1915 by Goodall Industries, a local textile manufacturer. The stadium had become a popular fixture on the Sanford recreational scene, even, at various times, featuring the play of future Hall of Famer George Sisler and local lad Freddy Parent, an early shortstop of the Boston Red Sox.

2029_Historic_Park_Goodall_Park

Perhaps the most historically significant moment came in 1919, when none other than Babe Ruth himself clouted a three-run homer for the Red Sox in an exhibition game against the Sanford Professionals. The contest would prove the Babe’s very last in a Red Sox uniform.

The stadium was one of the highest-profile of the largess of the beloved Goodall family, which established roots in Sanford shortly after the Civil War, when Yorkshire, England-born Thomas Goodall made his home there.

The importance of the Goodall family and their extensive business, especially their textile mills, to Sanford was massive. Wrote author Edwin Emery in his book, “The History of Sanford, Maine, 1991-1900”:

“To give, in detail, the history of the Goodall enterprises, would require a volume of well filled pages, devoted to absolutely nothing else. … It is acknowledged that Goodall enterprise has been chiefly instrumental in transforming the Sanford of yesterday, into the thriving industrial centre of today.”

Emery added that Goodall was responsible for “[t]he conversion of this rustic, farming village, composed of thirty dwellings and a corner grocery, into the important commercial and manufacturing Sanford of the present …”

Today, Goodall Park has been rebuilt after a devastating arson fire in 1997 and currently plays host to the Sanford Mainers of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. And the Mainers are just the latest chapter in Sanford’s love affair with the national pastime.

“The people of Sanford have long demonstrated an affinity for baseball,” penned Pete Warner of the Bangor Daily News in June 2014. He added:

“Fans here enthusiastically embraced the game at Goodall Park (built in 1915) even before future Hall of Fame slugger Babe Ruth graced the grounds during a barnstorming visit in October 1919.”

Local reporter David Dutch of the Sanford News summed it up simply upon the stadium’s centennial celebration last spring: “Baseball, Goodall Park and Sanford are synonymous.”

The June 3, 1949, game between the Colored Giants and the Goodall-Sanford team was apparently big news, even attracting the attention of the Portland Press Herald newspaper, which hailed the arrival of the Negro Leagues barnstormers to the town of about 15,000.

“The famed battery of Will Jackman and Burleigh [sic] White will be the visitors,” stated the paper, “in this first appearance of the season at the local park.”

The Goodalls, meanwhile, had over the previous few years since the end of World War II mustered what Dutch tabbed “one of the best teams in New England” in what became known as “the golden age” of Maine semipro baseball.

Assembling the Sanford-Goodall aggregation for their showdown against the Colored Giants was business manager Johnny Burke, who quickly recruited sturdy-armed outfielder and pitcher Armand “Aime” Porrell to assume mound duties for the game. Porrell was fresh off a stint with in the Coastal Plain League, a minor-league circuit in the Carolinas.

Receiving Porrell’s tosses would be Henry L’Heureux, a Boston-area native and brother of the more well known Walt L’Heureux, who competed for the Canada-based Granby Red Sox of the Border League.

The Negro League wanderers wouldn’t just have Jackman and White, either; also studding their lineup was first baseman Fran “Lefty” Matthews, a native of Cambridge, Mass., who was arguably the Giants’ most well known athlete on the national Negro Leagues scene. The  34-year-old Matthews had spent portions of five seasons playing for the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles, one of the most storied franchises in blackball.

Alas, the oft-cruel fates of semipro baseball ended up playing a joke on the poor Sanford populace — a rain started to pelt Goodall Park, and the contest was called after seven innings, curtailing what could have been a barnburner.

SONY DSC

The Boston bunch won the precipitation-halted contest, 6-3, with Matthews driving in a run for the Giants and Porrell helping his own cause by thumping a double. The Giants tallied three runs in the top of the second, then added one each in the third, fifth and sixth frames.

The Goodalls pushed across two scores of their own in the thrd and one in the sixth, but it wasn’t enough.

Both teams carried on for the season, with the Colored Giants hitting the road yet again, heading to, among other locales, Portsmouth; Nashua, N.H.; and Newport, R.I. Baseball, and life, would inevitably churn forward.

In hindsight, though, what can be made of the Boston Colored Giants’ venture to Sanford, Maine, in summer 1949? As a specific event, perhaps not much. The game was cut short because of rain, the superstars didn’t play, and the local boys lost.

But on a larger scale, the African-American team’s appearance in the textile-mill town was a perfect example, almost a microcosm, of semipro baseball life at the time, for both squads, and for Sanford.

During the mid-20th century, following the conclusion of the Second World War, the American pastime thrived, not only in big cities like Boston, but in just about every town across New England.

It was in these settings, most of all, where ethnicities and cultures mixed, where segregation was torn down, at least for an hour or two. Black met white, barriers came down, and baseball players — and the towns in which they lived — learned how much they had in common.

A trip to India

pic2747

Bill Yancey

Every once in a while, I really miss my old graduate school bud, Arindam Mukherjee. He and I helped each other through some tough times at Indiana U., and we forged a bond for life during that stint.

Now is one of the times when I miss Ari dearly. But, alas, he’s in his native India — Delhi, to be precise, although he was born and raised in Ranchi — and I haven’t seen him since his academic green card expired a bunch of years ago.

However, I’m still in touch with him via the WhatsApp iPhone thingee, and we trade messages regularly. I try to keep up with what’s going on in his favorite sport, cricket, but it’s a challenge. There’s just not much coverage in the American press, despite numerous attempts by entrepreneurs and other visionaries — both in the U.S. and abroad — to create a foothold for cricket here Stateside. Check out this Web site and this one for the latest cricket dope.

(I should note India advanced to the semifinals of the most recent Cricket World Cup, held last year and hosted by the Aussies and New Zealand. However, Australia won the tourney, its fourth title in the last five Cups. Damn you, Paul Hogan!)

As all baseball historians know, cricket was one of the forerunners — along with rounders and a couple other English pastimes — of the American pastime. Ari and I tried to teach each other the basics of our respective passions, with mixed results. I will say that, to me, cricket bears a striking resemblance to the game of base ball — two words back then — in its nascence, i.e. 1840s to early 18880s, if my memory serves. Today that era in the national pastime is celebrated as “vintage base ball.”

I also have another connection to India: A few years ago I wrote a few articles about Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, two Indian javelin throwers who in 2008 won a novel reality show contest in India called “The Million Dollar Arm.” Patel and Singh possessed the fastest fireballs out of the many contestants and, as a result, earned them each minor-league contracts with the MLB’s Pirates. (They picked up a whopping $8,000 signing bonus and earned a visit to the White House.)

Their tale is best known through the 2014 Disney movie adaptation starring Jon Hamm. But I got in n the ground floor and was able, before the story became a global sensation, to interview not only the two neophyte pitchers but also the creator of The Million Dollar Arm, Los Angeles sports agent J.B. Bernstein.

Bernstein, along with a few visionary representatives from MLB, have been trying to plant some baseball seeds in the world’s second-largest country and largest democracy. One of the ultimate goals is to build on the success of TMDA and mine India’s vast population for hidden hardball talent.

Unfortunately, Patel was cut by the Bucs in 2010 and returned to India in 2011 to finish school, practice the javelin (his natural sport) and teach baseball to throngs of youngsters, many of whom took part in an ensuing edition of TMDA.

Singh, meanwhile, has struggled with major injuries, causing, for example, to miss the entire 2014 and 2015 campaigns, a painful stint that included Tommy John surgery. But he’s persevering, playing in numerous low-level pro circuits, including the Dominican Summer League and the Australian Baseball League. (Yep, baseball is actually pretty big among the Aussies.) Despite the travails, the Pirates still see promise in the India native — they resigned him late last year.

However, all of these recent exploratory efforts aren’t the first time American baseball figures have attempted to expose India and other parts of South Asia to our Grand Old Game. (Well, it’s old for us, but compared to cricket, baseball is maybe a teenager.)

And it was the Negro Leagues community that did it!

In spring 1945, in the waning days of World War II, ace New York Amsterdam News columnist and editor Dan Burley worked with the military’s USO program to assemble a sterling group of African-American athletes to tour India, Burma and other nations in the Asian theater of the war. (At that time, the modern nation of Myanmar was called Burma.)

(As another side note, in 1943, Burley reported that the National Baseball Congress — the amateur administrative body in American — had launched a 12-team in India. Burley stated that, “In far-off India, which had never been host to a game of baseball until the past few years, America’s national pastime has gone Asiatic.”)

Kenny-Washington-1

Kenny Washington

The troupe — dubbed the “Parade of Stars” — included former boxing champ Henry Armstrong, UCLA football star Kenny Washington, former pro football player Joe Lillard, and dual-sport luminary Bill Yancey, who starred in the Negro Leagues for the Black Yankees, Philadelphia Giants and other squads, and shined for the trailblazing African-American hoops squad Harlem Rens.

HT_RENS_TEAM_150218_DG

Harlem Rens

Yancey was particularly suited for the ambitious endeavor — a few years earlier he served as a Negro Leagues baseball scout in Panama and other Central American and Caribbean countries, a job that was lauded by his comrades back home.

The India ensemble made several stops at various U.S. military camps through South Asia and, according to media reports, performed for and entertained tens of thousands of appreciative, fervent G.I.s.

Their routine included demonstrations of their respective sports by each athlete, Q&A (or “bull”) sessions with the audience, and some boogie-woogie piano playing by Burley himself to close out the extravaganza. In addition, Armstrong flashed his old skills by winning an open boxing tournament in Calcutta.

In a dispatch from that city, an Amsterdam News correspondent (likely Burley himself) lauded the all-black USO crew for enlivening throngs of soldiers of all colors:

“Everywhere the unit has appeared it has received a rousing reception and wild acclaim from soldiers and sailors in the audiences. So popular has the unit become since its departure from the United States last April 6 that commanding officers of various installations in the China-India-Burma theatre are competing with one another for the services of the athletes. …

“Altogether the show is considered absolutely tops in the opinion of [the] Special Service Officer whose job it is to route such revues through the various military bases and and installations. In fact, it is being said that for morale value the sports show has done more in its short time in India than any other factor to give the hard working men a lift in spirits. The show has been playing to both white audiences and has stimulated the fighting men [to] no end with its color, drama and sports aspects.”

Several correspondents from the Stateside African-American media apparently tagged along with the entertainers as they visited bases along the Stilwell Road between India and Burma, and, one reporter dispatched, “traveled over 780 miles of the famous Ledo Road; played Calcutta, Karachi and other large cities and centers in India; and is due to return to the States sometime [in July].” (The Stilwell Road was forged as a key Allied supply line in Burma during WWII and was later redubbed the Ledo Road.)

African-americans-wwii-009

Ledo Road

In all, the troupe spent about three months traversing South and Southeast Asia, covering an estimated 50,000 miles and performing for 100,000 troops of all colors. One photo of the trip published in the May 19, 1945, Cleveland Call and Post pictures Armstrong shadow boxing with two Indian boys in Calcutta. The paper wrote: “Henry Armstrong, apparently convinced a left hook is the same in anybody’s language, tackles the job of teaching a pair of Indian youngsters the art of boxing.”

Also raving about the crew was National Newspaper Publishers Association correspondent Frank Bolden, who in June issued a report from somewhere “along the Stillwell [sic] Road, India-Burma”:

“It is a show that really gives the GIs entertainment and a terrific morale boost because it is right down the alley for any red-blooded American youth. …

“All in all it is a good show, and it has and is still being received widely by both colored and white military personnel alike. And the men are deeply appreciative for the efforts spent in their behalf by some of our top notch performers. …”

However, Bolden then lamented, “It’s too bad that more of our great and well-known stars are unable to make a trip this way to entertain some mighty swell ‘fifty-dollar-a-month-room-and-board guys,’ who here on the ‘Victory Road to Tokyo’ are making it possible for those back home to carry on for years to come. Over here the show goes on too, ya know.”

The impact of the USO show and its success was deeply felt by the athletes themselves, it seems. An article in the July 21, 1945, issue of the Afro-American — under a headline reading, “Bill Yancey, Back from Tour, Says CBI Yanks Dream of Home” — related Yancey’s impressions.

“… Billy found the morale fairly high,” the dispatch read, “but only one thing on the minds of the soldiers, including a great many officers, and that was ‘getting back home.’”

box_a_armstrong_195

Henry Armstrong

Of course, the troupe’s venture must be placed into historical context. On May 8, 1945, about a month into the USO tour, Germany surrendered to the Allies in Europe, marking what was to become V-E Day.

Meanwhile, thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines were pushing through the South Pacific, advancing from island to island amidst brutal, bloody, costly fighting with the Japanese. As the American troops advanced, the U.S. launched the nuclear age when it dropped atomic bombs in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9).

The two bombings, combined with the victories of U.S. troops, convinced Japan to surrender to the Allies on Aug. 15, creating, forever onward, V-J Day.

My World War II history is a bit rusty, but the China theatre was crucial one in which the Chinese, especially in Manchuria, beat back the advancing, genocidal Japanese from the West.

Now, I don’t think the theatres in India and Burma were as important as the Allied military actions elsewhere. However, their placement in South Asia coincided with historic, history-defining events in Asia.

MTIwNjA4NjMzODE4MjIwMDQ0

The Mahatma

By 1945, the groundswell of the India independence movement — led, of course, by Mahatma Gandhi — had reached the tipping point as it used non-violent resistance to force colonial Britain to abandon its stranglehold on India, its people and its resources.

On July 18, 1947, that peaceful yet overwhelming effort achieved its goal, as the British conceded the country’s independence. Also, a day earlier, the new, majority-Muslim nation of Pakistan split off from the Hindu and Sikh-led India, setting in motion events that resonate to this day.

Undoubtedly the African-American U.S. troops watched the Indian independence movement closely, realizing what a nation of oppressed people could do to obtain freedom. As we know, the success and spirit of the Indians’ peaceful resistance greatly inspired Dr. Martin Luther King and the rest of the ensuing American civil-rights movement.

The African-American sports media definitely took a cue from the development of India’s method of peaceful resistance as a way to oust the colonial British. In 1953 — eight years after the black USO tour and six after Indian independence — Atlanta Daily World sports columnist Marion Jackson asserted those lessons could be applied to fight the insistence of certain Cotton States League teams’ on not taking the field against other squads with African Americans:

“Just how this will affect Cotton States League attendance is not known at the moment but a silent protest is in the offing which is similar to the non-violence campaign initiated by minorities in India, Kenya and other South African countries under the heel of sadistical [sic] rulers.”

Shifting back to 1945 and the push to win the war, the still-segregated black American troops joined thousands of other U.S. soldiers in sweeping east across Europe until they captured the German capitol of Berlin and toppled the Nazi regime. That victory coincided, of course, with the push in the Pacific.

Just like the black troops in India saw, first-hand, the effects of racial tyranny, the African-American soldiers looked at what the Allies were fighting — totalitarian government bolstered by ethnic cleansing and genocide toward Jews and other European minorities — and saw distinct parallels to their own second-class status back home in the U.S. The paradox of segregated black troops fighting for freedom overseas deeply affected the “Negro” soldiers and sailors after they returned home after the war.

Indeed, even before they shipped home, African-American soldiers in South Asia already felt the ongoing sting of segregation, even in uniform. In July 1945, Baltimore Afro-American war correspondent Max Johnson issued a missive from Cairo about what the USO troop witnessed during their travels:

“For example, Armstrong, who has been fighting fourteen years and once held three championships simultaneously, said he was impressed by the marked loneliness of those soldiers in the areas where his troupe [v]isited.

“‘After seeing how they must exist,’ Armstrong said, ‘I think that any man who spends six months out there should be brought back to the States and released immediately from the Army.’”

But Armstrong’s consternation was dwarfed by the indignation displayed by other members of the USO corps. Johnson continued writing:

“Lillard, who is on leave from his job as a New York policeman, shared the same views and was disgusted with the numerous indignities the colored troops faced there as a result of the racial discriminatory practices of white Americans commanding.

“Also outraged on this score was Burley, who contended that conditions were the worst — almost beyond belief.”

The American troops did, eventually, return home. Although they were greeted by a just-booming economy and the benefits of the landmark GI Bill, they also arrived Stateside just as the Iron Curtain fell, triggering a Cold War between East and West, USSR and US, democracy and communism.

However, the civil rights movement did ramp up, and once it started snowballing, there was no stopping the long overdue and much savored victories of equality and integration.

Occasionally the subject of mining the population of South Asia for baseball talent popped up; in October 1945, writer Fay Young in a column opined about the lack of fresh blood about the African-American community and pondered whether a ringer or two could be plucked from that region.

Such efforts continue to this day, but, alas, have met with only limited success, although American baseball execs remain optimistic. But just as importantly, that all-black USO tour of South Asia in 1945 might very well have played a role, albeit probably minor, in bringing true democracy to our country.

Final note: N’Awlins, my current abode is host of the incredible National World War II Museum. If you happen to be in the NOLA area, definitely check it out!

A singular honor for a Pittsburgh legend

Attachment-1

Cum Posey Jr.

Here’s another guest post, and it’s another great one! This was written by Facebook pal Eric Newland, who volunteered to write about the news concerning Cum Posey’s new honor. Many thanks to Eric for producing such a good article, and as usual, if anyone out there wants to write a guest blog post, just let me know at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

By Eric Newland

On April 5, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, located in Springfield, Mass., announced 10 new inductees to be enshrined Sept. 9.

Headlining this year’s class are Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Yao Ming, Zelmo Beaty and Cumberland “Cum” Posey, who was selected by the new Early African-American Pioneers of the Game committee, which was formed in 2011 and which has the discretion to select inductees with a direct vote.

Claude Johnson, founder of the Black Five Foundation located in Pittsburgh, along with noted professor and historian Rob Ruck, have led the effort as advocates for basketball pioneers, whether black or white, on the hardwoods during the racially segregated “Black Five era” through 1950.

The term “Black Fives” includes those stellar, all-black basketball squads that thrived during the game’s era of de facto segregation. Johnson and Ruck led a 14-year campaign to build and recognize the unique body of work around Homestead’s own Cumberland Posey.

Posey was one of the original basketball pioneers as a player, coach, manager and owner, having won five National Basketball Championships. Ruck said, “Posey’s teams beat all comers, white and black. They did so with athletic skill, intelligence and dignity.”

Ruck said Posey’s basketball teams, as well as his Homestead Grays Negro Baseball League’s teams, “won more championships in the different sports than the Steelers and Pirates combined.”

Cumberland Willis “Cum” Posey Jr. was born June 20, 1890, in Homestead, Pa., into an elite, entrepreneurial family. Cumberland Posey Sr., born to slave parents in Virginia, was the first African-American licensed engineer of the United States, a riverboat builder and owner of Diamond Coke and Coal, the largest African-American business in Western Pennsylvania. The elder Posey was also president of the Pittsburgh Courier Publishing company, the nation’s largest circulated African-American newspaper.

Attachment-1-1

Cum Posey, bottom  right

Posey Jr’s bloodlines spurred the 5-foot-8, 145 pounder to join the worlds of baseball, football, basketball and golf, making him a barrier breaker preceding the likes of Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson. Wendell Smith, the prolific sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender, lauded Posey as, pound-for-pound, “the outstanding athlete of the Negro race in the 1920’s.”

Posey’s 35-year span from 1911-1946 as player, manager and owner of the iconic Homestead Grays baseball team of the Negro Leagues earned him enshrinement into the 2006 class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Despite his size, Posey’s competitive spirit, tenacity and athletic DNA earned him high praise as one of the nation’s leading African-American basketball players during a career spanning from the early 1900s through to the mid-1920s. As an 18-year-old, Posey led his Homestead High School basketball team to the 1908 Pittsburgh city championship.

Upon graduating high school, Posey integrated the Penn State University basketball team, playing two years for the Nittany Lions. He also played briefly for the old gold and blue of the University of Pittsburgh. Posey’s collegiate basketball career extended for three more years at Holy Ghost College (now Duquesne University) under the pseudonym “Charles Cumbert.” Cumbert/Posey was the team leader in scoring between 1916-18. In 1988, Duquesne University inducted Posey into its sports Hall of Fame.

In 1912, Posey formed an all-black basketball team known as the Monticello Rifles, who went on to win the colored basketball world championships. In 1913, he organized the Loendi Big Five, named after an East African River. The exclusive “Black and Tan” club, located in the lower Hill District of Pittsburgh acted as the team’s sponsor. (Cum Posey Sr. served as the Black and Tan president.) The Loendi Big Five went on to win four consecutive black national titles on the hardwoods between 1918-21.

Ruck said Posey’s athletic accomplishments reflected a growing African-American consciousness and pride.

“Posey and his teams showed what the African-American community was capable of achieving during some pretty hateful times when segregation and theories of racial supremacy were the norm,” Ruck said,

With his election to the Basketball Hall, Cumberland Posey Jr. becomes the first individual to be enshrined in both the Baseball and Basketball Halls of Fame, an honor that in all likelihood will never be matched.

About the author: Eric Newland is a producer in development with a scripted episodic series. “The Parallel Game,” based upon historical events in the Hill District of Pittsburgh during the 1920’s and ’30s. Contact Eric at Eric@theparallelgame.com.