The grave marking effort soldiers onward

Courtesy Jeremy Krock

For the next couple posts I want to give an update on the status of the various efforts of the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project. In addition to the sterling projects recently wrapped up by the NLBGMP (some of which I’ll discuss further down), right now, according to Dr. Krock and Larry Lester, there’s only a couple currently in the pipeline.

One of those is Billy Francis, a third baseman/manager from the deadball era/early 20th century who starred for influential teams like the Philadelphia Giants, the New York Lincoln Giants, the Chicago American Giants, the Hilldale Club, the Detroit Stars and the Bacharach Giants, as well as clubs in Cuba.

Francis is buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Ill., where numerous other blackball figures are also interred, including past NLBGMP beneficiaries like Bruce Petway, Walter Ball and Ted Strong. The Francis project has been in the works for several years now, but the light at the end of the tunnel is shining — the finishing touches are being made to the epitaph to be engraved in the stone (a task I was proudly in on), and Dr. Krock says there will hopefully be a dedication ceremony by the end of this year. (Finding a quality photo to use for the marker has been tough as well — like many of these legends, Francis was rarely photographed, or at least what’s currently known.)

The other endeavor currently gestating is the resting place of much-lauded, legendary journalist (and personal hero) Sam Lacy, longtime editor and writer for the Afro-American and inductee into the Writer’s and Broadcaster’s Wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Sam Lacy

Sam, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 99, is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Md. However, we’re still trying to sort out what exactly is on the grave currently as well as working to contact family members before we can get down to business.

(I made a few calls to the cemetery recently, but unfortunately I can’t find my notes about the calls and I can’t remember the results of the conversations.)

Other famous figures also interred in Lincoln Memorial are seminal black historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, football Hall of Famer Len Ford, tragic basketball prodigy Len Bias, medical pioneer Dr. Sarah Marinda Fraser, civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, trailblazing TV broadcaster Max Robinson, suffragist Mary Eliza Terrell, playwright Joseph A. Walker Jr. and, last but absolutely not least, the great Cyclone Joe Williams, who, frankly, I consider the best pitcher in history, any color or any era.

Naturally, given Lacy’s importance to and impact on my career, I’d like to contribute to this one, even though I’m 1,100 of miles away.

And, on that note, I should probably offer an explanation of where exactly my role is with the grave marker project. For a few years I reported on several of the NLBGMP’s efforts (including William Binga, Sol White and Olivia Taylor), but Dr. Krock and I talked a bit about a possibility of a conflict of interest for me if I was both helping with and making money from covering the project’s efforts.

So I decided to step back from covering the project for other publications — aside from this here blog — and focus on working for the NLBGMP itself for the time being. Aside from clearing up any ethical dilemmas, I’m really enjoying trying to give back to Negro Leagues and baseball history communities for all they’ve done to help, support, encourage and inspire me.

Tangential to that, then, are my efforts to locate graves of various blackball figures here in the Crescent City and surrounding parts and assess with of them could maybe benefit from the NLBGMP, such as Ducky Davenport and John Bissant. In the ensuing months, I’ll try to blog about and chronicle the progress I (and anyone else who wants to help!) make in that arena.

Dave Malarcher

I also want to celebrate the recent successful attempts to honor Louisiana legends, including Gentleman Dave Malarcher, who recently received a gorgeous head stone in Convent, La. Much to my embarrassment, I have yet to make it to St. James Parish to check it out myself, but I promise I will do that soon and report back.

Also mixed in there is situation of Hall of Famer Cristobal Torriente, who remains buried in a mass, unmarked grave in Queens, N.Y., and at this point (we think) the only HOFer left without his or her own headstone. Ralph Carhart has done a great deal of work with the Torriente situation, and I’ve tried to research/report/write/blog about as much as a can (like here, here and here), but the effort has kind of slacked off a bit as I’ve attended to other stuff and Ralph nears completion of his fantastic Hall Ball project. However, hopefully we can get back to Torriente’s plight very soon.

Cristobal Torriente

There’s also the slew of possible unmarked graves in or near St. Louis, a locale that largely has been untouched by the NLBGMP up to this point. However, Dr. Krock says the group has been in touch with officials at St. Peter’s Cemetery in St. Louis to determine how many players might be buried there, and then discover how many of them might need markers.

“That will probably be the big project of 2017,” he told me in an email.

Possibilities in St. Peter’s include powerful 19th-century owner/entrepreneur/kingpin Henry Bridgewater, St. Louis Giant Charles Mills and the multitalented Cowan “Bubba” Hyde.

Finally, possibly the most tragic, murky and complex story of all is that of Fred Goree, as covered by Ron Auther and Logan Jaffe. Goree was killed by police officers under still mysterious circumstances on an Illinois backroad in 1925 while driving with his semipro team to a scheduled contest.

There’s also others I’ve touched on in my blog but have kind of lost in the shuffle over the last year or two, such as sterling outfielder Ed Stone and Texas-born slugger George Johnson.

OK, now for some of the recently completed NLBGMP projects. One is Weldy Wilberforce Walker, the second openly African-American in the Major Leagues (after his brother, Fleet), who triumphantly received a stone in Steubenville, Ohio, thanks to the persistence and Herculean efforts of Craig Brown.

Courtesy of Craig Brown

Also finally receiving respect in death were Ted Strong and Waxey Williams.

One of the coolest recent success stories is that of Topeka Jack Johnson last October, another deadball star who strove tirelessly to create organized black leagues in the Midwest in the decades before the founding of the Negro National League in 1920. Not to be confused with heavyweight boxing champ of the same name, Topeka Jack toiled as a boxer himself but also worked as a police officer and firefighter.

To this day, Topeka Jack remains one of the most overlooked and underappreciated figures in blackball history, something Todd Fertig discussed in this excellent article for the Topeka Capital-Journal about the dedication ceremony last fall in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Topeka. I also wrote a blog post last year about Johnson’s involvement in the 1910 Western Colored League.

What’s especially cool about the recent Topeka Jack Johnson ceremony is that organizers and historians couple it with formal recognition of the nearby memorial to the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which in 1954 cracked the walls of segregation to arguably become the most important action of jurisprudence of the 20th century.

Topeka Jack Johnson

Sooooooo … there’s still much to be done, in terms of both legwork and financial donations. For more information, to help or to donate, check out the contacts info on the sites I linked to in the  first paragraph of this post.

I want to conclude this post by pointing you to a top-notch article from The Hardball Times from February of this year by Shakeia Taylor, who offers a comprehensive rundown of the NLBGMP’s history and mission, including photos of new markers and thoughts from Dr. Krock. So check it out if you can.

Next up for Home Plate Don’t Move — two grave projects in particular, Gus Brooks and Dan Burley.

Post-script

I would be remiss if I didn’t laud the efforts of my Malloy Conference roomie Ted Knorr toward honoring his personal hero and fellow Harrisburger Rap Dixon, a process that included raising funds for an installing this amazing head stone!

Courtesy Ted Knorr

Advertisements

Wright, Welch and the Black Diamond

Winfield Welch

The last couple weeks have been somewhat chaotic, and my mind has been a bit scattered. I tend to pinball from topic to topic and subject to subject with a general inability to concentrate what mental aptitude I have left after all these years into one coherent direction.

Over the last month or so that handicap has been compounded by a new steady freelancing gig I landed that has taken up a fair amount of time on a weekly basis. I do (hopefully) have larger posts working around in my head, but in this post I wanted to catch y’all up on some of the pursuits I’ve kind of, umm, pursued lately.

The first is Homestead Grays pitcher, Brooklyn Dodgers signee and New Orleans native Johnny Wright. In this earlier post I examined his tenure as the ace of the Great Lakes Naval team’s pitching rotation during WWII.

It was a pretty solid post, except for what I inexplicably missed — that Wright’s military grave marker says he served in the Army, not the Navy. For a supposedly hawkeyed journalist, I’m sometimes not all that perceptive.

Fortunately, a reader, Richard Tourangeau, did notice that discrepancy, and he thankfully emailed me and pointed it out. So I went through some of the newspaper articles I’d pulled up from online archives about Wright during the war, and, lo and behold, I found a story in the Oct. 7, 1944, issue of the Baltimore Afro-American that says Wright was given a leave to pitch for the Homesteaders in a doubleheader against the Black Barons:

But wait … the article states that Johnny was on leave from Fort Huachuca in Arizona! Not only is that not in Great Lakes, Ill., it’s an Army base, not a Navy installation! That somewhat corroborates his grave marker, at least a little.

Naturally I did a little more poking around to see if I could find any more contemporary articles that place Wright in the Army, but I couldn’t find any other than wire service variations of the one above.

However, things got even murkier when I found this wire service article in the July 26, 1945, issue of the Richmond (Ind.) Palladium-Item about the Fort Bennett Naval Field team in Brooklyn, N.Y., edging out the Chicago White Sox in an exhibition. Check out the reported pitcher for the New York sailors:

Yep, that’s our very own John Richard Wright, who suddenly is taking the hill for a Naval squad in upstate New York. Floyd Bennett Field was New York City’s first municipal airport before being converted to a military base.

At this point I have no idea what’s going on, and unfortunately, deadlines prevented me from digging any deeper into this. Doubly unfortunately, all the answers to the mystery of Johnny Wright’s military service trajectory might only be found in his personnel file somewhere, something to which I as a non-family member wouldn’t have easy access.

So, are there any military veterans or other folks reading this who could maybe explain Wright’s nomadic service travels? Would it be unusual for a serviceman whose primary duty was boosting troop and public morale by playing baseball, i.e. would it not be uncommon for a guy to be shifted around from installation to installation and even from service branch to service branch?

Also, obviously, if there’s any Wright descendants out there who would be able to willing to help clear up the hurler’s military career, definitely give a shout.

And because I like to have my head spinning as much as possible, I’ll throw in another quirky article before we leave the take of John Wright — a line or two in a Wendell Smith column from Dec. 1, 1945:

The Pittsburgh Courier column begins by stating:

“Johnny Wright, gangling right-handed pitcher of the Homestead Grays, has emphatically denied that he has signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Now in the Navy, Wright says he’ll stick with the Grays because Owners Posey and Jackson have been so good to him.”

That came just a month or two after Jackie Robinson had been inked by the Bums — and a just a few weeks before Wright did sign a minor league contract with Branch Rickey. As we know now, Wright never made it in organized baseball, the reason(s) for which are still debated to this day.

OK, on to the second find of the last couple weeks for me … In the past, I’ve written several blog posts (such as here and here) and an article about Winfield Welch, a native of tiny Napoleonville, La., who went on to an illustrious semipro and pro career with a slew of New Orleans teams before winning two NAL pennants with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1943-44 and eventually piloting barnstorming teams for promoter Abe Saperstein.

In all my previous research, I was never able to find an obituary or any other death details for Welch, other that he died in Pineville, La., in March 1980. But recently I’ve been trying to catalogue and locate the graves of various Louisiana Negro Leaguers, and I decided to take one more whack at the demise of Winfield Welch.

By coincidence, at the time I was also working on an article about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, a NOLA native who helped lay the foundation for the first truly American musical form. Bolden, you see, deteriorated mentally in his later years thanks to prodigious alcohol consumption, resulting in his committal to and ultimately his death in the Central Louisiana State Hospital, a longstanding and still-standing mental asylum located in, of all places, Pineville.

(After his death, Bolden’s body was moved back here to New Orleans, where he was buried in an unmarked grave in potter’s field named Holt Cemetery. The same fate befell another Crescent City native, Negro Leaguer Ducky Davenport, who starred for several NAL and NNL teams and was selected to multiple East-West All-Star rosters. A couple years ago, I looked into tracking down Davenport’s exact resting spot — chronicled by blog posts here and here — but I ultimately wasn’t able to do so, because, as I learned, many graves in Holt aren’t even recorded or charted. Such was also the case with Buddy Bolden; when grass roots volunteers worked to place a marker on Bolden’s resting place, his couldn’t be traced, but the community activists were able to erect a memorial for Bolden in the cemetery. That gives me hope that I can somehow try to honor Ducky Davenport in some way.)

Anyway, once I learned that the state mental asylum — as well as the facility’s own depressingly bleak cemetery — was in Pineville, I worried that Winfield Welch, who died in Pineville, might actually have spent his last years in the asylum and, as a result, was buried in the forlorn graveyard there.

Alas and quite fortunately, I at long last turned up an obituary for Welch in the Alexandria Town Talk from March 4, 1980 (Alexandria and Pineville are both located in Rapides Parish):

The obituary indicates that Welch died on March 2, 1980, in Pilgrim Manor Nursing Home in Pineville — not, happily, in the psychiatric hospital. He was buried Holly Oak Cemetery in Pineville. Note, though, that the paper spelled his name incorrectly — with two Ns instead of one. The misspelling of his name in contemporary media wasn’t unusual; during his career in New Orleans, Welch’s last name was frequently listed as Welsh. It was those various errors that probably made it tough to track down a definitive obit for him.

Now, onward and upward to the third of this post neat item I found recently — the legend of the Black Diamond.

That would be Robert Pipkins, a Mississippi born, NOLA-bred guy who gained substantial regional and some national fame as a pitcher nicknamed the Black Diamond.

And actually, Pipkins has a connection to Winfield Welch — when the latter was hired to pilot the Black Barons, he brought Black Diamond along as part of his pitching rotation. Here’s a pic from the June 24, 1942, issue of the Atlanta Daily World. To be honest, I’d never seen a good picture of him before, so this was a pretty cool find for me:

Following his stint with the Barons, the southpaw stuck with Welch when the latter managed barnstorming clubs like the Cincinnati Crescents in 1946.

Prior to hooking on with the Barons in 1942, Pipkins found fame on the, ahem, diamonds of New Orleans, frequently with teams owned by Fred Caulfield, such as the Caulfield Ads and the Jax Red Sox. Pipkins hurled for other regional teams as well both before and after his tenure in the national spotlight, garnering major coverage and kudos from the Louisiana Weekly, the Crescent City’s African-American newspaper.

As you can tell from his quirky nickname, Pipkins as such became a legendary figure on the New Orleans blackball scene, and during my research I’ve come across dozens of stories about him, but until now I never really had the opportunity to explore his personal life and background.

Thus, I was ecstatic when I found this picture and caption from the Times-Picayune in 1970, in which Pipkins receives an award from the Old Timers Baseball Club, a celebrated group of former NOLA Negro Leaguers who held an annual all-star reunion game and banquet. The caption for the picture states that Pipkins, at the time the oldest living member of the club, received the Old Timer of the Year Award:

The Diamond subsequently lived five more years before passing away in March 1975. Here’s his obit from the Times-Picayune:

The article indicates Pipkins’ involvement with the Old Timers Club as well as the Ninth Ward Grays Baseball Club, of which I’d never heard before. He was buried in Rest Haven Memorial Park, and I’ll hopefully be able to get out there and find his grave marker. There’s a good chance he does, in fact, have a marker, because he served in the Army during WWII and therefore should have had a military funeral.

According to several governmental documents — including his Army enlistment record from August 1942 — Pipkins was born in August 1907, which would have made him 67 at the time of his death.

Also of significance in the obit is the note about Pipkins’ membership in the local Masons and the scheduling of a memorial service by the organization. The note is signed by Worshipful Master Ellis Marsalis, which is quite intriguing because, if it’s the same guy, Ellis Marsalis was the patriarch of the famous Marsalis jazz musicians, including modern-day luminaries like Wynton and Branford.

OK, finally, on to the last item for this blog screed — expanding on my last entry, which examined at the importance of the contemporary African-American media to the coverage, evolution and progression Negro Leagues history and the integration of the national pastime. …

In another coincidence of my work and research, shortly after I penned that aforementioned post, I was assigned to write a story for nola.com about the founding of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper, a task that resulted in my delving into the archives of various academic journals and newspapers in search of information about the history of the publication.

In doing so, I discovered an essay by Doxey A. Wilkerson in the Autumn 1947 issue of The Journal of Negro Education entitled, “The Negro Press.” In addition to exploring the history of black newspapers, Wilkerson lays out how crucial African-American media have been to our nation’s history, but in a much more eloquent, encompassing way than my blog post did. Here are a few excerpts:

“This special-interest character of the Negro press is the key to an understanding of its unique role in the field of American journalism, and to an appreciation of its importance as a publicity medium. It is also a key to the effective use of that medium.

“From their inception more than 120 years ago Negro newspapers have always been fighting publications, militantly championing the freedom and full democratic rights of the Negro people, stimulating and organizing their struggles, and helping to build an increasingly unified Negro people’s liberation movement.”

The article asserts that “the pioneer Negro newspaper” was Freedom’s Journal, launched in New York City in 1827. The essay then states that the Journal, and all ensuing black newspapers, bore two primary purposes:

“… to promote the struggle for Negro democratic rights and to speak to America and the world in the name of the Negro people, constitute the predominating function of the Negro press today.

“It must be understood that Negro Americans are much more than merely one-tenth of the population which happens to have physical characteristics more or less different from those of most Americans. Their centuries of struggle against the slave system, and their continuing struggles since Emancipation against the social, economic and political discriminations which proscribe most all Negroes to an inferior status in the society-have built up common bonds of understanding among them, a sense of unity far more pronounced than in any other large sector of the population, and an organizational life which is in large measure separate from that of other Americans. As a result there has developed, within the general American population, a definite, self-conscious and increasingly organized minority people, fighting with ever increasing militancy and effectiveness towards its historic goals of full democratic freedom and dignity in all areas of our country’s life.”

As one reads through Wilkerson’s article, though, one must keep in mind that the piece was written in 1947, and as a result, should be approached through that contemporary prism, i.e. the politics and economics of the 1940s. He concludes with a look into the future:

“The outlook for the Negro press is the outlook for the Negro people — continued struggle against the hostile forces of bigotry which seek to negate the inherent worth and human dignity of America’s largest minority population. But it is a winning fight. Despite serious and at times protracted setbacks, the Negro people are, in- deed, moving forward toward their historic goal of full democratic rights and security. As always, the Negro press will continue to play a major role in organizing and strengthening this forward movement of the Negro people; and as they progress, so will the American nation progress-and so also will Negro newspapers become ever more effective instruments for the dissemination of news and insights and opinion.”

But here’s Wilkerson’s bottom line in 1947:

“In short, the Negro press is a crusading press which serves the special needs of a militantly struggling people.” [Emphasis his.]

I’m going to wrap things up with a quote from Dan Burley — a talented musician and bandleader, as well New York Amsterdam News editor, sportswriter and entertainment columnist — whom I referenced in this earlier post.

In August 1942, while discussing the risking career of prizefighter Harvey Massey, Burley stressed the importance of black newspapers to African-American athletes, sports and society, while also grinding an axe with what Burley saw as ungrateful readers and athletes:

“The colored newspaper worker … has a legitimate squawk: The Negro who gets breaks through our columns seldom gives credit where it is due. Many times Negro athletes, theatrical folks and others will take anything they can get through the efforts of a Negro newspaperman and then turn right around and give credit to a daily columnist or some other white person who takes over after the Negro benefactor opens the door.”

Such journalistic grousing, of course, is not unique to any particular ethnicity, era or medium; journalists have always grumbled about being unappreciated ignored by their readers and subjects, a trend that most certainly continues to this day.

But is it a fair complaint instead of simply wounded pride? That, again will be discussed and scrutinized in perpetuity. I’ll just note that in an ensuing post, Dan Burley and his influence will be front and center …

 

The black press: A complex past, a pivotal future

Dan Burley

PRELUDE

“Today, more than ever, the Black Press remains the trusted and audacious voice of black America. Today, the NNPA continues this irrepressible tradition of publishing truth to power. Our freedom fighting publishers are all united as we reaffirm the vital importance and relevance of the Black Press now and into the future.”

— NNPA President and CEO Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., to NNPA reporter Stacy M. Brown, March 22017

As the current administration in D.C. continues its completely rational and not-at-all-paranoid-and-unhinged feud/temper tantrum with the media, it’s forcing many of us in the journalism business to reevaluate and assess our purpose in society and American culture, what our role should be, where we’re headed and what we could be capable of if we actually focused on the right things and jettisoned our obsession with, well, stupid stuff.

It’s a reflective process that is absolutely necessary, and many observers feel the current political situation is spurring some American media members to “get their groove back,” so to speak.

Sports journalists, on the surface, might seem to be undergoing self-evaluation to a lesser extent, because so far, athletics — aside from the occasional volley of criticism or satire from prominent sports figures like Gregg Popovich or even teams like the Erie SeaWolves — have largely remained outside the fray. The sports media and the consumers of that sports media have traditionally often been able to keep the sports world separate from society as a whole, a place of refuge and tranquility, an escape from the madness of everyday life and all its deflating trappings.

But sooner or later, sports journalists will be sucked into the swirling cyclone that continues to rip our country apart. Maybe it’ll come when a championship team, as is tradition, to be invited to the White House to be honored and one or more members of the team refuse to go on political grounds. Or maybe it’ll come when, however terrifying the prospect is, a high-profile black or Latino athlete is assaulted by law enforcement authorities.

Whatever triggers the entrance of the sports media into the national debate, it will undoubtedly come at some point, and history has shown that over and over and over again. The sporting world and the complexities of society at large have intersected when boxing championships have dated white women or taken a stand against the draft. It’s happened when ex-football stars have been charged with murdering their ex-wives, and when Olympic sprinters have raised their gloved fists on the medal stand to protest the long-standing oppression of black Americans.

And, yeah, there’s a theme that emerges here — race. Most of the time, when sports and society do collide, it’s over racial or ethnic issues that expose the deep rifts that have severed our culture for centuries, issues that will continue to haunt our nation long, long after we are dead and gone. Racial oppression and bigotry will forever be the albatross around our collective neck, and no more apparent will it be than in the world of sports — whether sports scribes and fans like it or not.

White sportswriters weren’t thrilled …

Aside from boxing and track, ground zero for the clashing of sports journalism and society has been — or at least throughout the sport’s history — baseball. We need look no further than the film, “42,” which depicts the role African-American writer Wendell Smith played in Jackie Robinson’s entry into and first season in the major leagues.

In fact, as Negro League historians, we know that it was often members of the African-American media, particularly newspapers, who pressed for the integration of Organized Baseball and the end of Jim Crowism in the national pastime. Popular sports columnists arranged tryouts for black players with white teams, and scribes dogged MLB owners by consistent peppering them with question about whether the time for integration was upon the baseball business.

While it was usually black journalists who instigated the discussion, sympathetic white writers gradually took up arms with their African-American brethren and crusaded for equality and justice in the American pastime by vocalizing their beliefs in their own work, as well, as standing up for black writers in press boxes across the country.

The book, “Black Writers/Black Baseball,” is a compilation of columns by the greats of the African-American press. Wrote editor Jim Reisler:

“They were extraordinary men. … Indeed, their most lasting collective contribution may have been an eloquent, persistent and occasionally bitter demonstration of words designed to urge to urge the white baseball establishment to integrate. It was that same group who actively accompanied black players to tryouts with major league teams, making their case face-to-face with the white owners. Arguably, their campaign was what finally pushed big league owners to question and finally end the color ban.”

Of course, there’s a bit of hagiography there, because black writers absolutely possessed their own foibles and weaknesses; in particular, their constant, necessary efforts to straddle the blurry line between objective chroniclers and overt cheerleaders and PR tools wasn’t always successful.

But, regardless, they did their jobs and helped foment social revolution. One of those men who helped stir the pot, so to speak, was one of my heroes, Baltimore Afro-American sports editor and columnist Sam Lacy, whom I profiled in this earlier post and whose role in Robinson’s achievements was sadly excised out of “42.”

But there were others in the “Negro” papers aside from Smith and Lacy who addressed the need for and then the impact of integration in baseball, and they frequently did it with a prescience and insight that is very often lacking in our modern sports media. These journalists displayed the sagacity and canniness necessary to peel back the layers of matters at hand and force readers to absorb, interpret and ponder those matters for themselves.

In fact, here’s a passage from Sam’s autobiography that aptly describes some of the truisms of journalism:

“Some people believe sportswriting is a sop. It’s not. Often a writer must assess the talent and conduct of major stars, some of them close friends, and at times, that conduct involves sensitive matters or questions that affect a person’s ability to make a living. To do it honestly, the writer must be as straightforward when dealing with the players as when challenging the personalities and institutions that refused for so long to open doors and opportunities for all talented athletes without regard to color.”

To the point … While doing research for an article about blackball history in Chicago, I came across a few examples of such contemplation, in both the years preceding and following the integration of the sport. The handful of articles I turned up caught my eye and my interest as examples of the type of journalism that’s often quite lacking in today’s sports media.

(I’ll note that because I was research blackball in the Windy City, I mostly looked at the archives of the Chicago Defender, but from past research I can state that the themes I explore here were common to just about every African-American publication.)

In September 1942, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender produced a lengthy treatise that pointed out what most black Americans already knew and what a growing number of white citizens were realizing — that African Americans could be recruited and drafted into a war for freedom, justice and equality, but they were rigidly blocked from playing in Organized Baseball, the flagship of American sporting image and culture.

Young bluntly called out the owners, managers and other powers-that-be in baseball by raising the names of the dictators the U.S. military servicemen and women were giving their lives to fight. Integration, he said, would seem to just make sense.

“But such is not the case — at least not so far — and it may be some time before the owners and powers that govern organized baseball come to the full realization that they themselves are playing into the hands of Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese emperor, Hirohito. The leaders are the Axis powers are the enemies of our nation — likewise and man or set of men who deny American citizens the right to earn a decent livelihood because of color must be jotted down in this day and time as enemies of fullfledged [sic] loyal American citizens.”

Damn.

Young also dropped some logic up in there — he noted that integration would increase team attendance and revenue; he disputed the “hotels and restaurants won’t serve integrated teams” malarky but pointing out that college football and track teams already did so just fine; and put the kibosh on the theory that race riots simply wouldn’t happen anymore, and Joe Louis’ reign as heavyweight champ proved that.

Plus, he essentially called MLB owners wusses — many of these guys claimed they want to hire Negroes, but they had so little backbone that they were skeered to make the first move.

Oh, and Young called strident segregationists “dyed-in-the-wool crackers.” Which, I’m sorry, is pretty freakin’ funny.

You want blunt and incisive? Move ahead 23 years and read a column Doc Young (no relation) wrote for the Defender in 1965 under the headline, “How Negro Players Saved Organized Baseball.” Eighteen years after MLB integration, Young ran down — with his characteristic soaring-yet-searing style — what happened in the 1940s, including the usual dumbarse and illogical reasons Organized Baseball and its enablers refused to integrate. Terms like “lilywhite as the driven snow,” “private preserve of segregationists,” and “cozy in their closed shop” were used.

But Young then drove to what many historians and sociologists believe was the heart of the psychology of segregation — white men, fueled by insecurity, jealousy, sexist and testosterone, were freaked about the possibility of black men getting close to white women. Wrote Young:

“A prominent, and frank, major league executive told a Negro club that integration would work because women were attracted to home run hitters and, he indicated, the idea of white women applauding muscular Negro home run hitters was no less than frightening.”

Mic drop.

That wasn’t the only bold assertion Young made in the column. Citing evidence that, by 1965, MLB’s best, most well paid players were largely African-American. Also noting that most competitive and potential pennant-winning teams had black stars, Young laid it all out there, with a juicy dollop of sarcasm:

“In this, the twentieth year of baseball’s equal opportunity employment program, no one gets upset because Caucasian females applaud a Willie Mays, not when Negro females cheer a Mickey Mantle. And, happily, contrary to the dire predictions of certain bigots on learning that Robinson had been signed to play organized ball, the country hasn’t gone to pot and Rickey hasn’t become a minister in a Father Divine Temple in Harlem.

“One needs not approach the boundaries of hyperbole to say that Negro players, and the Latin ‘coloreds’ who followed them, actually have been the saviors of major league baseball. For, without them, what is now known as major league ball would hardly measure up to Triple-A, minor league standards.”

In other words, baseball would suck without integration.

However, one prognostication about the impact integration would have — that it would kill the Negro Leagues — did, in fact, come true. Some pundits pointed it out matter-of-factly, some asserted it would be a painful but necessary sep toward a better American, and others flouted it as a phony baloney excuse to retain Jim Crow in the national pastime.

Regardless of how one views the decline of the Negro Leagues, it did happen, and naturally, journalists in the black press both documented and lamented it. Without a doubt, the very existence and greatness of the Negro Leagues was a shining example of African-American perseverance, pride and ingenuity, but it was also a gloomy symbol of the virulent fear that gripped American society for centuries.

The effect the disintegration of blackball had on the country’s African-American press is a subject that’s always intrigued me. Did the elimination of one of their bread-and-butter beats destroy Negro sports pages or cause catastrophic drops in circulation and ad revenue? Or were newspapers and reporters able to transition from the the subject of segregation to the topic of integration?

What would Ida do?

The answer to those queries are probably out there, but what’s true is that dozens of African-American newspapers and broadcast outlets are still alive and thriving. In fact, the Chicago Defender is in its 112th year of publication at a time when mainstream papers have been circling the drain for decades. In fact, the Defender expanded to a daily in 1956, a decade after baseball integration, suggesting the country’s flagship black paper progress in baseball. (It went back to weekly status in 2003.)

Of course, baseball hasn’t really been the only thing going on in the United States for 150 years. There’s been a few other things popping up now and then — wars, lynchings, economic downturns, and fire hoses and attack dogs and bombed churches — so it would be absolutely ridiculous to think baseball (as well as other sports) were what predicted the health of a black media outlet.

In fact, the greatest impact the Defender has had on American politics, society and economics was its strident, persistent, fearless messages to Southern African-Americans, urging them to abandon the life-threatening and humiliating fear and oppression of Jim Crow and move north for more economic opportunity and sociopolitical equality.

Such missives factored heavily into the Great Migration that completely transformed American on myriad levels. That recruitment was also despised and even feared by the Southern white establishment, who not only lost the ability to boost their own pathetic self-esteem by psychologically and physically attacking people not like them, but also the lifeblood of the agricultural, plantation economy that had fed and propped up all of Dixie society for centuries. In other words, Southern whites were scared witless of going broke and facing their own depressing psychologies.

Mr. Lacy

But, back to the original point … African-American newspapers of the late 1940s and ’50s were forced to cover and comment on the decline of the Negro Leagues. They knew they had to, for better or for worse, and they did so with impressive prescience and self-reflection that many modern-day media meatheads painfully lack.

In September 1950, the Associated Negro Press’ Luix Virgil Overbea (that’s a mouthful) penned a column that analyzed the decline of the Negro Leagues and asserted that rejuvenated support from black baseball fans (and, I suppose, fans of other ethnicities) was desperately needed to keep blackball alive.

The overall tone of Overebea’s piece was melancholic and rueful, but it was also laced with appeals to tradition and cultural pride. A few (lengthy) excerpts:

“Negro baseball is one the ropes facing a knockout blow unless Negro fans will rally to its support and save it until next year.

“Unfortunately, I must write this story of what appears to me a decaying enterprise, Negro baseball. Unless something is done constructively, by both the owners and the fans, I fear that next year at this time I may be forced to write an obituary for organized Negro baseball. …

“Racial pride tells me that in the main the NAL is a Negro enterprise employing Negroes and making money for the race. As a Negro I should support it.

“This, however, is not reason enough. As long as there is Jim Crow in the South on the basis of performance as well as in observance, Negro baseball as such is needed. If the Southern Negro wants to play baseball there, he will have to set up the game for himself.”

Overbea cited several examples of lousy attendance throughout the Negro Leagues world as evidence — less than 5,000 folks at an American Giants game despite a huge Elks convention in Chi-town; a continued sleep slide in turnout at the prestigious East-West game; and the Cleveland Buckeyes went belly up and the Baltimore Elites (the previous year’s league champs) were rumored to be on the brink of folding up their tents (they made it through the 1950 campaign before giving up).

Whose fault is that? Not just Negro League teams and owners, Overbea charged:

“What is wrong with Negro baseball to bring on all these troubles? The teams play a very good brand of baseball, better than most minor league clubs. Umpires keep the game moving and prevent those old-time player fist fights. A number of the players are very colorful.

“Some of the things wrong are not the fault of the clubs themselves. These include schedules, parks, booking games, and high costs. An example of park and schedule troubles is the case of the Indianapolis Clowns who did not play a single home games this season because no park was available to them.

“The great bugaboo in Negro baseball that clubs can do something about is the lack of fan support. People just do not go out to the parks to see the teams play.

“Artificial stimulants are not enough; clubs must build up fan loyalty. The American Giants had a ladies day on opening day and still did not draw 5,000 people to two games. The Giants also hired some white players, but they have not pulled in any crowds either here in Chicago. …

“A large percentage [of fans] still come just to raise the bottle and trouble. In talking to them I have learned that nobody seems to know the players. Some girls come out to see and meet the players. A youngster or two asks for an autograph. Otherwise the players and the games are often ignored.”

Plus he took a shot at the beat reporters who covered black baseball. In brief: Reporters are lazy dumbnuts.

There’s a lot to unpack in that column. One, in this day and age, having endured the steroid era/panic/witch hunt, the term “artificial stimulants” takes on a whole new spin, as it were. But we know what Overbea meant, and he was right — pretty much any goofy thing Negro League teams threw at fans made nary a difference. As the 1950s wore on, for example, the Clowns produced loonier and loonier stunts, but when the Majors snapped up their prime players — Mr. Aaron, for example — fans preferred to see the future clout king instead of zaniness.

Two, when he bemoans the fact that many fans come to Negro games simply to get plastered, cause a ruckus and completely ignores what’s happening on the field sounds like every Dodgers game currently.

But delving into deeper, serious matters raised by Overbea, I can’t address the issue because I’m neither black nor a mid-century baseball fan, so it wouldn’t be right for me to really do some opinionation on that topic.

But I would simply comment that, from research and discussions, it seems like the black baseball enthusiasts at that time might have had more racial pride in the guys who had broken through to the Majors and were excelling, like Robinson, Doby, Irvin, Satch and others. My sense was that the entire country knew that they were witnessing the dawn of an exciting new epoch and were adjusting to it in corresponding fashion (even the bigots who were still botherating had to grudgingly admit that their brand of segregated hardball was in the past).

The issue of black baseball in the South … Having undertaken a fair amount of research into that subject (especially here in NOLA), Overbea does have somewhat of a point, but he misses the fact that African-American talent in the South often signed up with squads elsewhere in the country, both integrated and segregated, such as several prospects here in the Crescent City like my late friend Herb Simpson. There was no reason the aspiring hardball stars would have to stay below the Mason-Dixon.

However, it is true that some leagues in Dixie did steadfastly and stubbornly refuse to accept the inevitable — like the Southern Association (including the New Orleans Pelicans), arguably most the recalcitrant circuit in the country, which, for all intents and purposes never integrated until its dying day in 1960. But other loops like the celebrated Evangeline League eventually did accept black players, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Southern teams knew the writing was on the wall, both socially and financially, and they welcomed African Americans when they realized they had to do so just to survive.

Then there’s Overbea’s most prickly point, at least for journalists — that beat writers of the day were slackers (maybe not as extensively as Spicoli, of course, but still occupying their time having pizza delivered to the newsroom).

That charge, I surmise, was completely bogus, because black media, especially newspapers, in the 1950s — aside from personally being thrilled to cover the exhilarating rides of Jackie and other pioneers — needed to survive financially, which meant giving their readers what the readers wanted to see, which was detailed coverage of said pioneers.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a brutal fact that still exists today, and not just for African-American media outlets. Media folks now are churning out what they believe their readers want, a process made even more thorny over the 30-plus years, thanks to online and social media and 24-7 TV outlets. The curse of the 24-hour news cycle — and I do believe it’s a curse, both for journalists and consumers — has led to the spewing out of just plain crappy news product.

Thanks for ruining things

That phony urgency has led media types to completely misread, so to speak, what many viewers and readers truly want — in depth, quality, complex journalism, not trashy tweets and garbage coverage of missing airliners and whatever dumb stuff was barfed out by InfoWars or Breitbart or Judge Pirro this time.

That also applies to modern sports media, which have made such amorphous mularky as bracketology and NFL draft boards staples of sports journalists’ own never-ending news cycles. Instead of posting up-to-the-minute updates about the status of Colin Kaepernick’s afro (“he’s 6-foot-5, with the afro 6-foot-9!”), sports jocks should delve deeply into the issues his actions have raised.

OK, now, back to the original theme of this ridiculously blathering post — the articles I found during my Chicago research — particularly the final one in the pile.

In October 1943, Defender columnist Lucius Harper penned one of his “Dustin’ of the News,” one that should serve as a model for serious journalists even seven-odd decades after it hit the streets. The lengthy commentary cuts to the bone regarding a phenomenon that has routinely shown up over the last century of American — the appropriation and outright theft of African-American culture and enterprise.

It’s an ugly trend that perhaps was/is most prevalent in the music business — white record company execs and concert producers swiping songwriting credit and profit from black artists. That’s not to mention the complete whitewashing of African-American music by white musicians, from Paul Whiteman to Pat Boone to Vanilla Ice.

But in October 1943, Harper’s concern was white businessmen taking advantage of the ever-evolving financial, geographic and structural nature of the Negro Leagues and its teams to slide in and usurp control, either upfront or behind the scenes, of blackball operations and enterprise. He asserted:

“Now that Negro baseball has become a paying proposition, it is on the threshold of danger for those few Negro business men who own and control colored clubs. When and Negro attraction begins to pile up enormous profits … and exhibition games can command the attention of some twenty-thousands persons in mid-season, there is a tendency on the part of white vested interests to gain the commanding reins of such a proposition, and with cunning and somewhat polite procedure relegate to the background, or to unimportant positions, the Negroes who control and share in the profits of such enterprises.

“So for racial cooperation from the standpoint of ownership and management of organized Negro baseball has been fruitful of great results, and has thus far demonstrated that racial unity in big business can be conducted along the lines of the most cordial and courteous relations. Upon this arrangement alone rests the hope and future of organized Negro baseball. To corrupt it would be fatal.”

Yeah that was a single long paragraph as originally published, so I broke it up into two of them. Even with that, Harper’s message can be a bit tough to discern through the complex sentence structure and florid language. At first, it seems like he’s lamenting the backdoor involvement of white entrepreneurs in black baseball, but then his prose takes a slight curve and he appears to approve, albeit reluctantly, the cautiously symbiotic arrangement produced by white intervention.

Such dense language and layered commentary was one of the constants of not just African-American journalism of the time, but all media outlets of the 1940s. But Harper offers measured qualifying of his first statements later in the column:

“Comes the report, however, that a corruption is in view. It will be known as the ‘October Plan’ in which organized Negro baseball may bury its interracial harmony and thereby transfer its profits and sole guidance to the interest of a group in which Negro owners of ball clubs will be merely the paid servants instead of the masters of the situation in the only sport now available for their stellar appearance in the nation’s athletic program. …”

Harper points to the music, boxing and horse-racing businesses in which it “seems an unwritten law that whenever a Negro becomes ‘a card or an ace’ he must not entrust his destiny in the hands and guidance of his own folk. Seeping into Negro baseball, now at its peak, is this odium.

“[The October Plan], we are told, is to break up the two leagues, combine them into one, mostly representing the East and West, couple Kansas City and Chicago, two of the best Negro League baseball centers, under one team (robbing Chicago fans of their hometown interest in an exclusive club) and transferring the master control of the league from colored to white.

“Such a plan if carried out in the October meeting will dwindle the interest of the public in organized Negro baseball, and it is the Negro fans in the final analysis who support the game and pile up the profits, not a few greedy, power-seeking owners of the clubs. The ‘October Plan’ has its ‘death sentence’ to the Negro owner in organized baseball that we hope it will not pronounce.”

Right off, I’ve never heard of any such backdoor “October Plan” that would have essentially been a massive coup on the part of white business interests with existing black team owners in full collusion. If anyone out there has heard of anything along those lines brewing during the 1943 Negro Leagues season, let me know.

(As a sidenote, Harper doesn’t name names in terms of exactly which white power brokers he had in mind, but it’s absolutely true that over the years, for better and for worse, white power brokers like Eddie Gottlieb, Abe Saperstein, Syd Pollock and the inimitable Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson, who arguably was the best white executive in blackball history and who has a plaque in Cooperstown to prove it.)

It should be noted that when discussing Gottlieb and Saperstein, two points are worth noting: one, both are more known for their basketball exploits (hence the links to the Naismith Museum); and two, both undoubtedly had to face and navigate anti-Semitism throughout their careers, which factors into the larger Negro Leagues picture.

Defender founder Robert Abbott

However, the organization, stability and profitability of blackball (at least in general) was certainly on the minds of other African-American journalists at the time; scribes such as Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier and Dan Burley of the New York Amsterdam News proffered a keen awareness that black baseball was at a crucial junction in its existence mid-war. (Burley was also a talented musician, music writer and booking agent.)

Coming off an extremely successful season in ’43 — economic prosperity from the war effort provided fans with enough money to spend on games, a development reflected, for example, by the tens of thousands who turned out for the East-West game — these media hawkeyes pushed Negro League owners to get their stuff together to be ready if and when Organized Baseball finally broke down and signed black talent.

Wrote Smith in December 1943:

“I am firmly convinced that the time has come for owners of Negro teams to settle down and start operating as a sound business basis. If there was ever a time for these men to start figuring and planning for the future, its is now. … No one knows when the majors will drop the color barrier and decide to admit Negro players. … Consequently, it seems to me, it would be wise for owners of teams in the Negro American and Negro National leagues to stabilize themselves to the extent that they will be able to realize a financial profit if they are forced to give up some of their players.”

Burley, meanwhile, eviscerated Negro League execs for the bumbling and fumbling that led to blackball’s failure to help the war effort:

“Another non-beautiful chapter in the do-nothing history of organized Negro Baseball seems to have been written … It can safely be said that a blow to racial prestige has come about in the failure of the bigwigs of Negro baseball to make a representation to the War Department for colored players to go abroad, either as teams, or mixed with the white clubs that are under consideration.

“All along, Negro Baseball hasn’t shown too much get up in demanding its proper place in the national morale equation.

“It has yet to take a clearcut, unequivocal viewpoint of Negro players in the Big League. …

“A loose organization of teams that can kick over the traces [of organization] on a moment’s notice; play where they want to and when they want to against whom they please, so to speak, isn’t a healthy indication that Negro Baseball is on its way. Neither does it augur well for the supporting fans to not see anything at all about what colored club owners and demanding not alone for the players, but for the good of all organized Negro baseball.”

Burley, who was always a bit more pointed and fearless in his critiques than other black writers, also targets the personal qualities of each team owner and how it affects the status quo — Ed Bolden of the Philly Stars (smart but to quiet and unassertive), James Semler of the NY Black Yankees (puts forward good ideas but too burdened by financial challenges and the lure of his Long Island retreat), Tom Wilson of the Baltimore Elite Giants (affable and happy-go-lucky, but to the extreme, resulting in a troubling nonchalance), Alex Pompez of the NY Cubans (a dreamer with big visions but no capital to make them happen) and Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays (extremely knowledgeable and capable but too accustomed to working behind closed doors).

Burley rips the Negro Leagues for never hiring a commissioner, failing to send advocates and lobbyists to Washington, relying too heavily on the once-a-year blockbuster East-West Game and a handful of premium exhibition contests for revenue, and just being insular and myopic in the big picture. He states:

“There is no doubting the ability of the boys in question to set up a table overnight, load it down with everything fine and nice and score a sellout with the tickets. But that’s overnight; the stuff is where it can be watched; where individual investors can run back and see if it still there during the course of the night, week or month the money is on the table. But when it comes to long-range vision in which what a guy does today won’t have effect or result until five years or so from now, our boys are on the wrong side of the fence.”

In the end, all of those factors, failures or fudge-ups absolutely could have contributed to blackball’s downfall, and exactly why those conditions existed — basically, why the powers-that-be in the Negro Leagues just couldn’t get on the ball internally and organizationally — has been oft discussed, always will be discussed, and stands as too big a topic for here and now.

However, the assertions of Smith and Burley do require reflection in one regard — the role of the great Effa Manley. Over the last couple of decades — and especially with her Hall of Fame induction in 2006 — Effa’s involvement in and impact on Negro Leagues history have received the attention and research they deserve, because Mrs. Manley was, quite simply, a titan, often the only Negro Leagues owner that had, well, any balls whatsoever.

But in his column, Smith advances bunch of ideas like commandments from Moses even though Effa had been advocating for several of those same proposals for years. Smith makes no mention of her whatsoever, and he steadfastly refers to all the owners and executives solely in the masculine.

But Burley does mention Manley in his critique of each owner, and he matter-of-factly asserts that she gets casually dismissed by her colleagues:

“Effa Manley of the Newark Eagles, a stormy petrel of idealism who has advanced many forward and constructive ideas about the investment of her husband, Abe, owner of the club, but who is handicapped by her sex and by lack of co-operation.”

But, digression aside, back to the analysis of the columns by the three scribes — Burley, Smith and Harper — because within them lies the fundamental difference between the urgent positivity of Smith and Burley, and the morose pessimism of Harper. It also, perhaps, fleshes out overall African-American society and all of American society at the time.

In 1943, Smith and Burley, for all their inspiring foresight, might not have fully realized what integration of the sport would eventually entail — as that process, initiated by Branch Rickey and joined by Bill Veeck and other MLB owners, gradually developed beginning in late 1945, at least a few of those MLB execs didn’t think anything of simply raiding Negro teams for talent, pilfering blackball stars with no compensation or even regard for Negro League teams of owners.

For all of Rickey’s visionary altruism and push for social equality, he was also had dollar signs in his eyes when he signed Jackie, a move that triggered slow, painful decline and disintegration of the Negro Leagues.

So, in a way, white businessmen did end up causing blackball’s demise not just as an athletic enterprise, but as a profitable, African-American financial juggernaut. It might not have gone in the exact way Harper foretold, but it did take place.

In that regard, as a journalist, Harper was on the cutting edge of prognostication and commentary, and he was able to cut through the misty-eyed halcyon days of the era with what proved to be a stinging truism — the destruction of the once-proud Negro Leagues by outside forces.

And that, ladles and gentlemints, is what a good journalist does. He or she needs to walk the tightrope between sensational bluster and revolutionary prescience when analyzing not just what’s going down now, but what the future may hold.

The best African-American journalists of the 20th century were able to do that, just like white pundits in the mainstream of society did. But in addition to contributing to the zeitgeist, black writers brought a distinctive, often ignored point of view — that of a minority that was boldly shedding centuries of bigotry and ignorance and clawing away, slowly, tenaciously, unflaggingly, toward a new day.

They were pissed, they were proud, they were relentless, and they were judicious. And they still are today. (One need only check out April Ryan sparring with Sean Spicer.) They are our brothers and sisters in arms, and they, like us, will not stop.

POSTSCRIPT

 

“Yet, while these developments contributed to the African-American community’s decreasing interest in the Negro Leagues, the black press’ treatment of and relationship with the Negro Leagues played an important role as well. African-American newspapers’ attitudes towards the Negro Leagues shifted dramatically from the cooperative spirit between the two institutions in the 1920s and 1930s, to a fractured, contentious relationship during the 1940s and 1950s. This change influenced African-Americans’ perception of the league. More importantly, the deteriorating relationship between these two black institutions illustrates the struggles African-Americans encountered as they transitioned into an integrated environment.”

— Samuel Edward Gale, The International Journal of the History of Sport, July 2016