My Buck story: Dennis Graham and research obsession

Here’s another installment of my continuing series about me and Buck Leonard. Actually, this is Part 1 of the installment, so it’s an installment within an installment. We’re getting all “Inception” up in here. You know, meta or something. Anyway, I’ll hopefully have Part 2 next week. You can check out a few of my previous Buck posts here, here and here.

This is my second whack at writing this post, because my first attempt perfectly and sadly exemplified the problems/strengths (which term I use depends how I feel about myself on a given day) one of the themes that I hoped to outline with this post.

Yeah, that’s a bit meta, and just writing it has me dealing with a bout of self-induced confusion. But this post was supposed to be partially about how easy it can be to — I know I over-use this term too much, but thinking of bunnies makes be happy — slip down the rabbit hole when it comes to historical research, and how such a literary venture provides me with both an escape from the occasional challenges of my disorders as well as, more malignantly, a place to hide when I really need to be dealing with serious crap in my life.

To wit: the saga of Dennis Wilson Graham and how the hand of fate maneuvers people of different backgrounds, mindframes and eras into a tapestry that, while intricate and sometimes admittedly tenuous, comes together seamlessly to help someone remember that life ain’t so bad, that we’re all connected, and that pushing forward is the right thing to do.

Dennis Graham also, of course, represents my maddening tendency to get lost in minutae and online databases to the point that I become a babbling, tedious mess of a writer and researcher. Seriously, I can drone aimlessly. You know it. I know it. Here we are.

So, a launching point: while researching Buck Leonard for this blog series, including his connection to his hometown and state, I came across this in the June 29, 1966, issue of the Rocky Mount Telegram, Buck’s hometown paper. It’s an installment of a regular column written by (apparently) another Rocky Mount native who, coincidentally, settled in Pittsburgh, just like Buck did for most of his career. The column, dubbed “Some of This and That” with the byline of “By An Old Reporter,” included this passage:

“As a resident of Pittsburgh and a baseball fan, whose interest in the national outdoor pastime goes back to the days of the Rocky Mount team that boasted such immortals of the diamond as Jim Thorpe [yes, that Thorpe, of “thanks, King” fame, which I’ll touch on briefly below], Sam Price and Doc Anderson, I miss few of the Pirates’ games that are played while I am in the city. At those games I have noted a colored man of pleasant appearance, who seemed to be be in his early seventies, at every game, sitting in the same seat every night, just three rows in front of where I sit. The other evening I got into conversation with him, and found him to be a real student of baseball, as well as a gentleman in every respect. He told me his name is Graham.

“His interest in baseball went back to the days when he was a regular player on the nation’s outstanding Negro team, the famous Homestead Grays. I hastened to tell him of a player on that team who now lives in retirement in his (and my) old home town of Rocky Mount.

“‘Who would that be?’ he asked.

“When I told him it would be and is the Grays’ star first baseman of many years, Buck Leonard, he became quite excited. ‘Good old Buck!’ he exclaimed. ‘A great ball player and just as fine a gentleman. Tell me, how is he? And when you arre [sic] down that way, please team him that I asked about him.’

“And so if I don’t get to see you when I am down that way, Buck, there is the message from one of your fellow players on the Grays.”

From there, the writer launched a narrative about the Grays — the guy was actually pretty well informed for an (assumed) white man born and raised in the South at the time — and how he (the author) had recently been told by none other than long-time Pirates executive Bill Benswanger that Benswanger “planned to break the color line in baseball long before the late Branch Rickey turned the trick by signing Jackie Robinson …”

(The use of the term “turn a trick” obviously has an, ahem, different, somewhat illicit connotation these days, but this was 50-plus years ago, when folks also used terms like “gee whiz,” “golly wow,” “he’s so dreamy” and “that is totally mint!” Well, OK, maybe those dopey terms weren’t actually used much in the 1960s. I cribbed the first two from a stereotypically perplexed Beaver Cleaver, the third one from “Back to the Future,” and the last one from “Super 8” — fantastic movie by JJ Abrams, btw, check it out — which used terminology that I and my friends actually used ourselves circa 1980 when we were 8. So yeah.)

Anyhoo … the Telegram writer went on to described how Benswanger (according to the Bucs owner’s own narration) was going to sign Josh Gibson to a major league contract but was dissuaded by a “tearful plea” from Cum Posey, who allegedly cried that “that loss of Gibson would take away the Gray’s [sic] main gate attraction, and that breaking of the color line would eventually destroy the Grays altogether.”

Whether any of that story is true and any of that stuff actually happened … I have no idea. The sentiment allegedly expressed by Posey — that integration would ruin the Negro Leagues — was absolutely at least a factor (and for some an actual fear and/or vexation) for Negro League teams and owners as integration proceeded. But I can’t really picture Posey — a very proud, self-assured man — actually bawling and begging a major league owner to not do something.

But that’s a topic for discussion. And for what it’s worth, An Old Reporter added:

“Benswanger said he knew how much money, time and effort Posey had put into the Grays, and just didn’t have the heart to strike the first blow in breaking up the team.”

(Well, how noble of you, oh compassionate white man! Thank you for possibly making up a whole bunch of nonsense and for believing that the you, as the benevolent paternalist you were, to believe that you alone held the fate of one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history in your loving, firm hands!)

The column showed that, even in the turbulent ’60s, the white population of a Southern town had nonetheless started to embrace Buck Leonard, a black player, as a hometown hero, which was a (tentative) good sign at the time. I discussed this subject a bit more in this post.)

That face was reinforced a year later, when An Old Reporter, the Steel City resident, returned to the topic in column from the Aug. 6, 1967, Telegram:

“At a twi-night double header at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh the other night, I ran into a friend by the name of Graham, an aging and portly gentleman, who, thirty and forty years ago, was an outfielder with Pittsburgh’s famed Negro team, The Homestead Grays, and he asked that I convey his greetings and good wishes to his old teammate, Buck Leonard, of Rocky Mount, who was the first baseman. And so, Buck, consider that I have carried out his directions. Speaking of his own abilities as a ball player, Graham told me ‘I wasn’t so hot in the field but I was pretty good with the stick.’ He want on to add that Buck was first-class both at bat and in the field.”

(OK, I said I’d explain the Jim Thorpe deal: as many SABR members might know, the legendary all-around athlete and Olympic champ ended up having the medals he won at the 1912 Games in Stockholm stripped from him because he reportedly had lost his “amateur status” by playing for the semipro baseball team, for a meager $2, in Rocky Mount, the Railroaders of the then-Eastern Carolina Association in 1909 and ’10. In 1982, his Olympic medals were restored to him posthumously. Ideally, I would have put this info in a footnote, but honestly, I have no idea how to do that in WordPress.)

Now, by posting those two lengthy passages pretty much verbatim, I’ve revealed one of my writing and researching flaws — I love me some quotes. Pure, unadulterated quote. I adore quotes to the point of irrational obsession. They give me warm fuzzies. Which, after a while, isn’t always a positive thing.

Also by posting these quotes, I’ve piqued your interest just as mine was when I first uncovered these articles — who is this Graham, and how in the heck is he related to Buck Leonard and, more confoundingly, my current blog series?

I shall expound … and, in so doing, attempt to avoid another of my common pitfalls as an historian and writer — that of getting lost in minutae and parsing details waaaaaaaay to obsessively.

And I shall do that by explaining who Dennis Graham was. Normally, of course, I’d end up writing a dissertation-length diatribe about him, one that gets lost in the thicket of specifics and brambles of marginal irrelevance when the researched person in question so that either a) I write too much about a player who, while good, wasn’t a superstar, b) the reader gets hopelessly bored and has his or her eyes glaze over, and/or c) I completely drown what was supposed to be the point in a soup of sidetracks and diversions that, while possibly nifty, really detract from my goal.

That’s what happened with my first draft of this post. I got bogged down in the Dennis Graham story when such, umm, bogged-downedness strayed from my focus.

It’s certainly not that Dennis Graham was a “meh” player who doesn’t deserve his own screed — he was a solid outfielder who deservedly earned praise and community (and media) attention for his abilities and exploits on the field — but this is not the place for that.

Pittsburgh Courier, June 10, 1925

Plus, while amply talented — he reportedly topped .400 for batting average in three different years and swatted over .300 for his career — he certainly was no Gibson, Leonard, Wilson or any other Grays superstars and Hall of Famers.

(As a counterpoint, it’s noteworthy, though, that in 1962 the Courier added another sterling trait to Graham’s legacy, calling him “the fastest going to first base” in Grays history. In addition, come April 1936, Cum Posey asserted that he “considers ‘Bujung’ Wilson and ‘Bujung’ Graham the best hitters of the Grays’ clubs in recent years.” I have no idea “Bujung” means, but it’s probably comparable to “Boojum,” Jud Wilson’s more well known nickname. That’s the only instance I’ve seen of Graham being called that. I also find a reference to Graham being dubbed “Peaches” as well. And now I want peach cobbler. Great. Anyway, I’ve found no explanation for those monikers.)

It could be argued that he was a role player who, for most of his career, ably played that role effectively, even reportedly becoming Cum Posey’s favorite all-time Gray.

Pittsburgh Courier, July 10, 1937. Posey singles out Graham.

But that’s really it. So for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll attempt to be brief when describing his playing career …

Pittsburgh Courier, April 27, 1929

Dennis Graham, as it turns out, was a solid, dependable outfielder for the Homestead club in the mid- to late-1920s, before the club really hit its groove and became a dynastic, Negro Leagues juggernaut. He stopped playing for the club after the 1930 season, but during his tenure with the Grays, he did play a key role in the club’s gradual strengthening ascendancy up the blackball ladder. He was a crucial facet of the Grays’ transition from sandlot and semipro upstarts, to independent, barnstorming stalwarts, to Negro Leagues powerhouse.

Newspaper reports suggested he started with the Grays in 1924 and immediately proved a success; in June 1924, the Courier opined:

“Graham has proven himself one of the most valuable men on the club, and his experience in ‘big time’ has made him a big factor in the consistent winning play of the team.”

And wrote the Courier’s Bill Nunn in May 1925, near the beginning of Graham’s Grays tenure:

“The Grays most consistent hitter. Graham, a former school teacher and college graduate [more on that in a bit], is quiet and unassuming, but when a drive goes into right, or a hit is needed to score a run, Graham is sure to produce.”

Most of the time Graham played in right field quite ably, and at the plate he was known for his power — not Gibsonian or, umm, Suttlesian by any means, but he could still crush a homer and launch a blistering line-drive double on occasion. In 1925, Graham put together a 24-game hitting streak (and possibly longer), and in May 1927 he earned a headline in the Pittsburgh Courier after smacking four hits, including a triple, in a Grays win over a club from Coshocton. In fact, in 1929, Graham clubbed the first Grays home-field hit of the season, a scorching single against the Akron Yellow Cabs. In 1925, the Courier said Graham “has proven the most consistent hitter in the Grays’ line-up.”

A few decades later, this is how later-day Courier sportswriter Earl Johnson summed up Graham’s talents and contributions to the Grays:

“Weighing close to 200 pounds [he] was almost as fast as either Harris or Gray in the outfield. He was the Grays leadoff man and his ability to get on base was equal to that of Eddie Stanky. Graham could bunt, drag bunt or knock the cover off the ball. He batted from the left side of the plate and when his bat met the ball, he was off to first base like a deer.”

Oddly, one of Graham’s weaknesses as a player seems to have a tendency toward maladies. During his first season with the Grays, in 1924, Graham sat out a few games “due to illness,” the Courier reported. On Christmas Eve, 1926, a car wreck caused enough of a gash to require 10 stitches in his leg below the knee, and in May 1928 he reportedly broke a small bone in his right foot during a rough slide into second. That one kept him out for a couple weeks.

But the most serious incident was an auto accident in June 1929 that involved one of the Grays’ traveling team cars. While everyone got some bumps and bruises — the Courier reported that six passengers, including Posey and Graham with a broken wrist — everyone was more or less OK, but the wreck apparently earned Graham a firm place in Homestead lore, as Courier columnist Rollo Wilson related in April 1930:

“The boys told a story about Graham, one which has never reached print, and his reaction to that automobile crash of the team [apparently there was another one following the 1925 wreck], last summer. It was up in the Pennsylvania mountains and it was See Posey’s car which skidded off that hump-backed road near Lewistown. As the men crawled from the wreckage other cars stopped to render assistance. Graham crept painfully out of the sedan and from the ditch, straightened up and made a halting path to the door of a farm house. To the lone woman who was standing there trembling he asked, brokenly, ‘Lady, have you got a mirror?’

“‘Why, yes,’ came her wondering reply, ‘but what do you want with a mirror now of all times?’

“‘Well, I want to see my face and see if it is cut,’ was the surprising comeback of the sturdy Grays outfielder.”

After leaving the Grays early in 1930, Graham played briefly with Tom Browns’ Stars, a semipro team, and even a handful of contests on the roster of the ascendant Pittsburgh Crawfords, therefore playing a role in the gradual rise of the crosstown rivalry between the Grays and Grays that would come to dominate the Pittsburgh sports scene in a few years later.

But  — oh boy, here we go again, with the “blah blah blah” and the going on and on and on, oy vey! —  the story of Graham’s departure from the Grays is one that’s both intriguing and multi-sided. I shall now engage in both indulging my obsessive writing traits — the same freakin’ one I already said in this post that wouldn’t happen in this post — and the chronicling of historical hearsay, scuttlebutt and rumor-mongering …

In its Feb. 22, 1930, issue, the Courier ran a photo of Graham, with a top-head stating “STATUS UNKNOWN,” and a caption asking, “Graham’s name did not appear with those of the men signed for 1930, and whether or not he will be with [the Grays] this season is still a question.” A separate, longer article in the same issue echoed the query.

Then, in the March 22 issue, columnist Bill Nunn issued an update, asserting that Graham had asked for for money and that management had balked and dumped Graham in favor of Oscar Owens in right field. Nunn wrote:

“Graham it appears, is a perennial holdout. This year, though, with the disbanded of the [first Negro National League], Posey found it possible to get plenty of good material. He has refused to pay those real fancy salaries, as have other managers. No use, he contends, to keep high-salaried when you can get others to take their places at reduced prices. Graham assists that his work during the winter would not allow of any reduction in salary. So that’s that, and it looks like the Grays and Graham are at odds for good.”

The April 26 issue of the Courier then confirmed that Graham had hitched on with Brown’s team for the 1930 campaign as part of a crop of talented stars signed by the semipro club, and a week later, Nunn expounded on Graham’s new gig, writing that “Dennis Graham, quiet, gentlemanly, whose powerful bat and speedy action has endeared him to thousands of fans in this vicinity, [will] be with the Browns.”

But there was one more journalistic shot left to be fired. On May 10, 1930, the Courier ran a column that charged the Grays with obfuscation and reticence in regards to Graham, hinting that something fishy or unseemly might be afoot.

But, funny enough, the author of that newspaper report was “Wylie Avenue” columnist John L. Clark, who just happened to double as — wait for it! — the press agent for the Crawfords.

That’s right — the representative for the Grays’ main local antagonist was smack-talkin’ the Grays. Specifically, here’s what the obviously objective and completely unbiased Clark wrote:

“The Homestead Grays 1930 baseball team has been a topic of discussion during the past week. There is a contention in some circles that the aggregation is better than years, while the other group claim [sic] that it is not as colorful.

“The names of Washington and Graham were brought up. These men, it is claimed, had developed a large following through personality and superb playing. And, that since no reason has been given for dropping them, a passive resentment is apt to show in the gate receipts.

“The Column, along with others, would like to know the true and actual reason for dropping these players. We do not agree, however, that the treatment accorded the players in question is different from that of big league operation. Nor will the passive or loquacious resentment materially affect the gate receipts.”

Geez, talk about “passive” … passive-aggressive. That was the equivalent of, “Hey, you didn’t hear it from me, but are those guys hiding stuff? The public — by which I mainly mean me, in this case — wants to know!”

A year later, Graham was in the Craws’ lineup for much of the 1931 season. Funny how stuff like that just happens …

(Really quickly and with no substantive segue … Graham did play for several squads before the Grays, including the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and even with the Baltimore Black Sox briefly in 1925 — he seems to have jumped between the Black Sox and Grays during 1924. Even earlier, he began his career in the mid-1910s with the semipro Havana Red Sox, but more on that later.)

However — and here’s my point, incredibly — there’s no evidence that Graham ever played on the same team as Buck Leonard, including with the Grays. It looks like Graham had left the squad, retired from baseball and settled into a second career as a railroad porter — known colloquially as “Red Caps” — in Pittsburgh before Buck arrived in the Steel City in 1934.

Most likely, that is how Graham and Leonard knew each other — while Leonard was establishing his HOF career with the Grays, “Peaches” was becoming a fixture in the Pittsburgh community.

Dennis and his wife, Sadie, raised a family in the Steel City, shuffling from home to home; the 1930 U.S. Census lists them and their two kids on Francis Street, while the 1940 record places the couple and their four children on Junilla Street. Dennis’ World War II draft card, issued in 1942, pegs him on Burrows Street. Sadie passed away in 1955, leaving Dennis a widower.

Graham worked as a red cap for several decades, and seems to have been quite devoted to the gig and the profession; in 1950, John Clark of the Courier mentioned Graham in comments about the status of the Redcap force in Pittsburgh, including an assertion that the “red cap force has been reduced to the point where the number is not sufficient to two trains arriving at the same time.” Oy vey. (On the positive side, Graham took part in parties, events and “smokers” — barbecues — for the local porter fraternity.)

Dennis, Sadie and their kids became very involved in the Pittsburgh African-American community; Sadie directed a glee club, and Dennis sang in similar singing groups. Sadie also was an active party of several fraternal organizations, while Dennis donated money to the local African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In his post-athletic retirement, though, Graham remained close to the game of baseball as well as the local sports media — again increasingly the likelihood that Graham and Leonard were at the very least casual acquaintances. In 1938, Graham took part in a Grays Old-Timer’s contest that served as a doubleheader opener that concluded with the Grays — with Buck Leonard — squaring off against the Newark Eagles.

In spring 1946, Graham solemnly served as an honorary pallbearer at Cum Posey’s funeral. In 1950, Graham was interviewed by Courier columnist Earl Johnson, who got the interviewee to name the ‘26 Grays as his favorite club on which he played, with the writer quoting Graham thusly:

“The Grays of ’26 was [sic] one of the greatest clubs I ever saw. The infield could bat, run and throw. Williams and Harris were fast and accurate in handling double play balls. Smith, while not as great as Martin Dehigo [sic], Jud Wilson or Judy Johnson was a reliable third baseman. Jap Washington was rugged, had sure hands and could hit the ball a mile. The outfield compared with many outfields in the major leagues.”

By the the twilight of his life, as the 1966 columns in the Rocky Mount Telegram attest, Graham had become a well-liked and respect regular at Pirates games, even attracting the attention of the mainstream Pittsburgh press. For example, in 1963 a Post-Gazette writer penned:

“Dennis Graham, who played for the Homestead Grays (1924-1930), is now a Pennsylvania Railroad redcap. He says his favorite Pirate when the Pittsburgh club was using the iron horse to travel was Pie Traynor. His favorite of all traveling secretaries in the major leagues is Bob Rice.”

Dennis Graham died in Pittsburgh on Dec. 2, 1967, at the age of 71. He was buried Allegheny Cemetery after a funeral service at Central Baptist Church. The Courier reported that several fellow Red Caps attended the services, and the paper described him as “popular and likeable” and “a great professional diamond star.” As a veteran, Graham received a granite military headstone.

Pittsburgh Press, Dec. 4, 1967

The brief Courier article also reported that Graham was born in Proctorville, N.C.

Wait, what? Buck Leonard was a North Carolina native, too. And Rocky Mount is only about 150 miles from Proctorville, which is located in Robeson County. But, hold on, Robeson County is home to the modern-day Native-American Lumbee Tribe … Lumbee Tribe? Wait, I know about them! I went to Robeson County a bunch of years ago for an article in Native Peoples magazine. Small world, man …