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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.