Kid Brown boxes his way into NOLA history

Louisiana Weekly, March 10, 1934.

This is the second part of a series of posts — actually sections of a much longer article in succession — about Eddie “Kid” Brown, a member of the Secret 9, Louis Armstrong’s semipro baseball team in New Orleans in the early 1930s. Check out the first part here.

In this installment, begin to examine Brown’s other athletic pursuit — boxing …

Before I take a dive into some of the career of Eddie Brown Sr., I need to note that just about every pugilist who fought in New Orleans carried a nickname of some sort or another. Some of the monikers were pretty wacky, and some were a play on words about the boxer’s color — Torpedo Smith, Young Danno, Fast Black, Baby Bear, Battling Siki and any number of fighters coined “Chocolate [something].”

But one of the more confusing aspects of the period in question is several many boxers were nickname “the Kid” or “Kid,” and it can be a challenge at times to parse out who’s fighting whom in which fights. Probably my favorite moniker of the Kids I came across was Kid Stringbean, a New Orleans lightweight in the ’30s.

Some background on the nature of professional boxing in New Orleans in the 1930s could be needed, too. While I was doing research, which largely covered just a couple years (from 1933-35), I found that there often wasn’t too much structure or organization to the proceedings, at least not beyond just the weight categories. Boxers could face one particular opponent multiple times in a year, and Kid Brown had a bout every one or two months. There appeared to be no official state or regional titles or championship belts or rankings; the awarding of crowns seemed to be more of an informal process, almost based on based on popular sentiment or media commentary.

Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9. Eddie Brown is the third player from the left, back row. (Image courtesy of the Louisiana Research Collection.)

For boxers of color, add racism and lack of opportunities to this willy-nilly, chaotic scene that existed for most Louisiana boxers in the 1930s. My friend Derby Gisclair, a local boxing aficionado and historian, related to me in an email the conditions and social background in which black fighters found themselves at the time. It’s lengthy, but I feel his prose captures the scene beautifully, a scene dominated by lonely anonymity, economic desperation and a desire to make their mark somehow, some way:

The majority of the introductions made at ringside were greeted indifferently, as if smothered under the fog of cigar smoke drifting up to the plenum of dark and aging venues like the Coliseum Arena that [the boxers] found themselves in that night. [The public and the fans] had not and would not form any sort of attachment to the lesser known fighters, particularly black fighters, who all labored in general anonymity.

“Many fought under assumed names, a tradition made famous by the first Jack Dempsey, the Nonpareil, and reintroduced years later by the second Jack Dempsey, the Manassas Mauler. But for legions of boxers it was the first hopeful rung on the ladder that would take them out of the crushing poverty that had invaded the country during the Thirties. In most cases, these bouts were a monologue delivered without notice or critique, but which nevertheless fanned the fire of hope to an entire generation of fighters.

“Boxing was a way to escape the Depression, made even more important to black fighters as a means of also attaining some measure of social justice that was their due, and that they hoped would be different this time. The great black fighters who inspired their ambition ranged from Tom Molineaux to Joe Gans to Jack Johnson, fighters who ascended to the pinnacle of the sport and, in so doing, gained a small measure of acceptance that proved to be as elusive as their fleeting fame.

“Yet these intrepid souls persisted undeterred between the ropes, battling moment-to-moment in a test of courage and morality. It was a fight outside the ring as much as it was a fight within the ring. If they were lucky there was a payday and a short recovery, and a chance to grasp the next rung on the ladder.

“Progress would be slow, typical of the pace of most things in New Orleans, but it came with a glimmer of hope. The club fighters of the Thirties may have labored in anonymity, but they proved to themselves if to no one else that the harder they fought, the more successful they would become.”

The Coliseum Arena in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection.)

Overall, according to, an official boxing statistics holder, Eddie Brown Sr. had a career pro record of 18-7-1, with three knockout wins, in an active career stretching from 1929-36. His first recorded bout, according to the Web site, took place Dec. 11, 1929, against Kid Phillips at the New Orleans Coliseum Arena (where the majority of Brown’s pro fights took place) and ended, interestingly, in the only draw of Brown’s career. (More on this later, however, because murkiness exists in this area.) Brown wrapped up his fighting career with a knockout loss to Edgar Theard on July, 26, 1936, at Heinemann Park (later named Pelican Stadium).

Several other Brown fights heard the gong at Westside Arena in Gretna, La., which is across the river from the bulk of New Orleans itself; and a couple were enjoined at Lincoln Park in New Orleans. (It remains a mystery whether the national anthem at those clashes were performed by Linkin Park.) One took place at the Roseland Athletic Club in Baton Rouge.

From the first fight of Brown’s career — against the aforementioned Kid Phillips in 1929 — New Orleans’ black sporting community knew it had something special on its hands. However, the  start of Kid Brown’s fistic career appears to be shrouded in confusion.

Why? Because the media reportage of his first few months in the ring is, to say the least, jumbled. According to BoxRec, Eddie Brown’s debut came on Dec. 11, 1929, in a draw against Kid Phillips on Dec. 11, 1929, at the Coliseum Arena, a narrative that was reinforced by the daily New Orleans States newspaper in the publication’s Dec. 12, 1929 edition.

But the Louisiana Weekly offers a completely different timeline for Brown’s early days as a pro pugilist. The Weekly, New Orleans’ preeminent African-American journal, reported in its Dec. 14, 1929 edition that Brown defeated Kid Alfred on Dec. 8, 1929, at the San Jacinto Club arena as an undercard. (Check out the end of this post for more on the San Jacinto, one of the most influential men’s clubs in the Crescent City.) The paper stated:

“Eddie Brown came up from the canvas to carry away the laurels from Kid Alfred in the semi-final bout. Alfred massaged Brown’s face with a right jab he kept on tap for Eddie’s rushes, but after Brown got hip to Alfred’s southpaw style of milling the rest was easy and the judges handed him the verdict on a platter.”

(I’m not sure if “massaged” is the right word for pounding someone’s face with a fist, but it’s definitely descriptive.)

The boxing gym at the San Jacinto Club. (Photo courtesy the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.)

Brown quickly gained popularity, it seems, and by his Feb. 2, 1930, clash with John Boneris at the San Jacinto arena. The Weekly described as a pretty boy — it stated that Boneris was a “patent leather topped youngster” who “certainly draws the lady folk out to the San Jacinto Fight Arena” when he fought — who ended up having no chance against the up-and-comer Brown.

The fight led the card that night, signaling that the public already knew the young Kid Brown had dynamite in his fists and lightning in his feet. The bout garnered a large headline on the Weekly’s sports page, and 

Boneris, the Weekly stated, was out of shape, and his characteristic “ferocity and craftiness” was no match against “a tartar of the person of Eddi [sic] Kid Brown, 121 pounds …” By the fifth round, Kid Brown had taken control using a “two-fisted attack” that “pounded the ‘Patent Leather Kid’ about the face from long range and peppered his body in the clinches.”

The sixth round all but ended the proceedings in Eddie’s favor, stated the Weekly:

“Brown kept on Bonny all the way jabbing and sweeping him before him with a ceaseless barrage and won the round by a wide margin. And the fight too.”

Things got a little strange a couple weeks later, however, almost inexplicably so. It seems Kid Brown was a card headliner for a slate of fights at the San Jacinto Club on Feb. 16, but, according to the Weekly, he had to back out of his scheduled six-rounder against Kid Bagneris after “suffering a nervous breakdown.”

The newspaper’s article didn’t elaborate on the situation at that time, but in its March 8, 1930, issue, the journal reported Kid Brown back in action for an intense go with Jackie Moore, whom the paper’s sports editor, Earl Wright, colorfully derided as “that little Jamaican that fights at the San Jacinto Arena between boat trips [who] has no more business scrapping around New Orleans for the price of a meal ticket than Phil Scott had for climbing into the same ring with Jack Sharkey over in Miami the other night.” (That was a reference to the heavyweight fight a couple weeks earlier in Miami between reigning American champ Sharkey and challenger Phil Scott of Britain in which Sharkey dominated the Brit in a third-round TKO.)

The Brown-Moore six-rounder on March 2, 1930, turned out to be heated, and not just inside the ring. By the time the clash concluded, those in the crowd weren’t too happy. Reported Wright:

“Moore has everything. A fighting heart, a sock in both mitts terrific enough to drop almost any man in the flyweight and bantamweight divisions and a shift that is beautiful to see in execution as well as in snatching him out of dangerous holes. Jackie brought all of his wares into play Sunday night against Eddie ‘Kid’ Brown … and after the thrills and shouting had died away Moore received the verdict. But he didn’t earn it. Half the fans who saw the mill voiced the opinion along with us.”

Enter even more weirdness, in the form of medical conditions. Wrote Wright:

“But, man and boy, what a scrap that was! Brown, discharged by a doctor five days before the bout, substituted for Bobby Peyton, and the way he left jabbed and hooked his right after the first canto was impressive and disastrous enough to earn him a draw in the least.”

And the climax, per Wright:

“The fighters continued their killing pace throughout the six round and both were bleeding at the end. Moore’s aggressiveness won a large portion of the crowd, but according to our tally a draw decision would have done justice to both fighters.”

Wright didn’t elaborate as to Kid Brown’s exact medical condition, further enhancing the mystery of what exactly transpired in Eddie’s early career. However, these breathless several months — and the media coverage of them — fleshes out the atmosphere in which black pro boxing took place in the first half of the 20th century in the Big Easy. Spirited prose, passionate audiences, scheduling, seat-of-the-pants action … it was all there, in vivid scenes and on sweaty, bloody canvases. It was magnificent.

(The San Jacinto Club deserves its own blog post because of its importance to the New Orleans African-American community in the first half of the 20th century, so I’m going to try to produce such a story within the next few months. For now, check out the end of this post for a “short” — well, short by my standards — description of the San Jacinto for now.)

To kind of cap off the narrative of the first half-year or so of Eddie “Kid” Brown’s fistic career, in early June, I’ll note that even at that young age, “Kid” was already-community minded — in early June 1930, he was on the card for a fundraiser for the “Colored Hospital Fund.” The Weekly described the packed slate of benefit matches at a local community center gym as “a crop of exciting scraps … “ Also on the bill were local pugilists Joe Oliver and Young Harry Wills. (More than likely, the term “colored hospital” referred to the Flint-Goodridge Hospital, which for decades was operated by Dillard University as the primary medical-care center for segregated New Orleans’ African-American community.)

At this point, the online record (such as at BoxRec) of Eddie Brown’s career goes dormant for a spell, and I wasn’t able to fully dive into the period between mid-1930 to early 1932. However, it looks like many of Brown’s bouts between 1930-31 were held at the San Jacinto Club.

Downtown Gretna, 1943. The Westside Arena, where Kid Brown engaged in a few bouts in 1932, is located in the westbank city. (Photo from the Louisiana Sea Grant Digital Images Collection.)

Now, January ’32 is when online lists of Brown’s fights pick back up. It’s also when the New Orleans daily newspaper once again generated coverage of Brown’s fights — of course, their reportage on Brown’s bouts, as well as of black boxing in general, was seriously lacking in detail and comprehensiveness — beginning with a long series of pugilistic encounters at Westside Arena.

The Westside Arena, briefly, was the premier venue for boxing and wrestling clashes on the westbank, which is the portion of greater New Orleans across the Mississippi River that today includes the Algiers section of the city of New Orleans, as well as a good chunk Jefferson Parish. Cities/towns like Gretna, Marrero and Westwego make up the westbank half of Jefferson Parish; the other section is back over the river, mainly in the city of Metairie, to the west of the city of New Orleans. (Numerous semi-pro and even pro teams African-American baseball clubs sprang up very early in the 20th century, and perhaps earlier, on the Westbank, most notably the Algiers Giants, one of highest-profile and successful Negro aggregations.)

At various points during the facility’s existence, promoters (usually either Lou Ovalasiti or Tony Tripani, more on those guys in the post-notes below) strove to assemble weekly, multi-bout cards of black fighters, including Eddie Brown, events that attracted enthusiastic, fairly decent-sized crowds at times. In all, BoxRec lists three of Eddie Brown’s fights taking place at the Westside Arena in early 1932, all of them ending in winning decisions for Brown.

That wraps up Part 2! Look for Part 3 after New Year’s! As always, many thanks for reading!

Satchmo’s Secret 9: a name behind a face

Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9. (Photo courtesy the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane University.)

Editor’s note: For the last year-plus, I’ve been gradually working, with much-appreciated assistance from several folks, to identify and discover more about the famous photo of the Secret 9 semipro baseball team owned by Satchmo himself, Louis Armstrong, in the early 1930s in New Orleans.

That photo, shown above, has been a source of both great pride and great mystery here in NOLA, because so far, none of the players had been identified, the source of the photo remains an enigma, and the nature of the team’s possible connection to the famed Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club has been been nearly impossible to define.

I’ve written about the Secret 9 in several publications, including here and here.

But over the past year, there’s been several breakthroughs in the slog to unearth facts and put to rest fiction surrounding the Secret 9! One of those epiphanies has been the identification of one of the players in the photo, and here’s a multi-part tale of that discovery and the talented, influential athlete at the center of the find.

Also, I know that in the process I’ve started multi-part stories on this blog and not finished them, for which I greatly apologize. However, that absolutely will not be the case here. I promise I’ll tell the whole tale. Now, without further ado, the story of Eddie “Kid” Brown, Part 1 …

In late August 1889, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper reported on the upcoming game between the hometown West Ends and the visiting Pinchbacks from New Orleans. The two teams claimed to be the champions of “colored” baseball from their respective geographic regions; in this case, respectively, the West and the South. (At the time, St. Louis was still considered a city on the Western frontier of the growing nation.)

The paper — which unfortunately reflected the level of racism prevalent in society by calling the Pinchbacks the “new coons in town” and referring to the game as the exposure of “a dark secret” — specifically addressed the presence of one New Orleans player in particular.

“It is said that the reason Mr. Lou Brown, short-stop of the Pinchbacks,” stated the P-D, “wears eye-glasses is because he is color-blind. He is one of the new coons on the nine, and is of a dude make-up.”

St. Louis Post-Aug. 30, 1889. 

In addition to the reporter’s fascination with the mystifying phenomenon of eyewear and the casual racism, the term “dude” is quite a unique one particular to the era. In this case, it doesn’t mean a White-Russian-chugging, strike-rolling, Creedence-loving, be-robed stoner, but, in the parlance of the time, a man who’s always dressed to the nines, free-spending and socially active. Depending on the precise context, “dude” could be used as either a term of affection, or a derogatory pejorative for black men.

In another article in the same Post-Dispatch issue, Lou Brown is listed on the roster of the Pinchbacks, a team that coalesced in the Big Easy as the wall of segregation was being constructed and that was managed by Walter L. Cohen, one of the most prominent African-American politicians and businessmen in the Crescent City and much of the rest of the country for decades.

The team coined its name to honor P.B.S. Pinchback, who for a few months in 1872-73 became the first African-American governor of a U.S. state. The squad only existed for a handful of years but nonetheless stamped a significant impact on baseball in New Orleans and black ball overall.

The New Orleans squad stopped in St. Louis for a few games while on their roughly three-week tour of the Midwest that also brought them to Chicago for more contests. The West Ends clobbered the travelers, 17-5, on Aug. 31, but the ‘Backs annihilated the local guys, 12-2, the next day. However, the West Ends took the rubber match, 20-13, allowing the locals to “maintain the colored championships of the South and West.”

The Pinchbacks pulled into New Orleans on Sept. 14 after posting a 5-3-1 mark on their road trip, and they continued their 1889 season well into autumn. Exactly how much playing time Lou Brown got for the Pinchbacks might, thanks to poor record-keeping, never be known.

But he did play for one of the first great black ball teams in history, making him a sportive trailblazer.

(Off the field, Louis Brown, who was born in April 1869, worked as a fish cleaner at the French Market in the first few decades of the 20th century. He died in January 1939 at the age of 69.)

Louis Brown’s place in baseball history and New Orleans heritage overall doesn’t end with the Pinchbacks.

That’s because his son — Edward “Eddie” “Kid” Brown Sr. — also earned a place on a legendary baseball aggregation in the Crescent City.

Eddie Brown, you see, was a member of none other than the Secret 9, jazz legend and hometown icon Louis Armstrong’s semipro baseball team.

The copy of the famed photo used by the Brown family to identify Eddie Brown, who is in the back row, third player from left, with a circle around him.

The Secret 9 only existed for a season or two circa 1931, and by all accounts they were mediocre at best, but Satchmo, an avid fan of the national pastime, was ebullient to have his own club, and he was extremely proud of his boys back home.

So proud, in fact, that on one trip to his old stomping grounds in the Big Easy, Louis gathered up his club, as well as his sidemen and assistants, for a team photo that has since attained near-iconic status.

The photo, however, has also become an enigma of sorts, because so far, no one has been able to identify the players in the shot; while a few names have popped up as being associated with the team — such as Julius “Kildee” Bowers, who is listed as the Secret 9’s pitcher in a game or two — none of the players in the picture have been identified by connecting a name with a face.

Louisiana Weekly, Sept. 24, 1932

Through numerous articles about the team, no one had been able to do that, even with a recent story I did for the Times-Picayune newspaper. However, since then, the quest for names has been joined by the folks at the International House Hotel in New Orleans, who made it a mission to promote the culture and heritage of New Orleans by honoring Armstrong and his countless contributions to the city.

Last year the IHH offered a re-creation of Armstrong’s favorite alcohol concoction, the Laughin’ Looie, and offered replica jerseys of the Secret 9’s uniforms — the ones worn by the long-ago players in that long-ago photograph.

The hotel’s efforts also included trying to do something where others have failed — identifying the athletes in the pic. A few months ago, they found success when they connected with Eddie Brown Jr., son of the Secret 9 player who positively ID’ed his father in the photo — back row, third player from left.

Earlier this year, Eddie Jr., his son (and Kid’s grandson) Marcus and I met with Sean Cummings and Stephanie Wellman at the IHH to meet and chat, and since then I’ve been digging into the history books and newspapers, and texting back and forth with Eddie Jr. about his athletic family’s history.

It’s taking me a lot longer than I expected to post this blog entry detailing the Brown family, but I really wanted to fill out their story. And the way this connection was made was quite serendipitous.

Louisiana Weekly, March 10, 1934 (apologies for the poor quality, the original on the microfilm is dark.)

Eddie Jr. told me that despite his father’s local sportive fame, his family has few photos of him from his life and career, with much of the family’s mementos lost during Hurricane Betsy in 1965, including a scrapbook, newspaper clippings and photo collection of his dad’s career.

“The only photos of my grandfather that I’ve ever seen was in his baseball uniform with the old fashioned flat top baseball cap on,” Eddie said.

One of the photos lost during Betsy more than a half-century ago was a copy of the iconic Secret 9 snapshot. Several years ago, Eddie looked up the Secret 9 during some exploring of history, and when he came across the team photo, he said, “I realized that this was the same picture that we had before Betsy destroyed it in 1965.”

Then, a bit later, one of Eddie’s son’s friends saw my article about the Secret 9 in the T-P, and the friend remembered that he (the friend) knew from Marcus that Marcus’ grandfather played on the team.

From there, the Browns contacted the folks at the International House Hotel, and the ball started  rolling from there.

(I should note that I haven’t found any references to Eddie Sr. in the contemporary coverage of the Secret 9 from 1930-32, but those articles don’t mention any members of Armstrong’s club besides beyond a handful, led by Kildee Bowers.)

As a side note, the fact that Eddie Brown Sr. was a member of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club gives credence to the belief that the roster of the Secret 9 was largely plucked from the ranks of Zulu. Eddie Brown Sr.’s younger brother, Roland, served as King of Zulu for Mardi Gras 1951 — two years, coincidentally, after the reign of none other than Louis Armstrong, who relished the honor in 1949.

Louisiana Weekly, July 28, 1934

(However, for years, Zulu and its club historian haven’t even responded to inquiries about the Secret 9 from numerous people, including me and Stephanie at the IHH. Their stonewalling has actually been quite frustrating. In addition to making the process of filling out the history of the Secret 9 and identifying the players, you’d think the club would want to play up its connection to such a historical gem.)

As for Louis Brown’s role with the Pinchbacks, Eddie Jr. says he doesn’t know a whole lot about the 19th-century club, but he did remember that his grandfather (Louis) had in fact played on the squad. I then reached out to my esteemed friend, colleague and 19th-century black ball guru James Brunson, who turned up the 1889 article in the Post-Dispatch, and we had confirmation!

However, Eddie Jr. told me that his father was much more than a diamond demon. In addition to being a prolific, multi-sport talent, Eddie Sr. served as a coach and mentor for younger generations of black and white youth.

“I don’t know much about the Pinchbacks but I do know that my dad was a Zulu member, and he played baseball as well as football at Milne Boys home, which used to be called the Colored Waif’s Home,” Eddie told me.

Incidentally, the Colored Waif’s Home most famous resident and successful product was none other than Louis Armstrong. Eddie Brown Jr. said that while his father played on the Colored Waif Home’s sports teams, the elder Brown, as far as Junior knows, didn’t actually live at the home.

But did the Brown family know Satchmo himself, the man who formed, funded and found much pride in the Secret 9 baseball team? Eddie Brown Jr. said his grandmother, Georgianna, as well as Eddie Brown Sr., knew Armstrong; in fact, he added, his grandmother was friends with Armstrong. However, Junior said, neither his grandmother nor his father talked too much about Satchmo and their relationships with the great trumpeter.

Eddie Brown Sr., in his later years, passed on what he had learned — as a boxer, as a baseball player and as a black man — to younger generations, Eddie Jr. said.

“My dad taught boxing as well as fencing at the Dryades Street YMCA,” he continued. “He also taught boxing at the [New Orleans Police Department] Academy on Navarre Avenue, and at Loyola with a fraternity. The club was called the Badgers. He coached boxing teams around the New Orleans area. He would pick up many of the neighborhood kids and bring all of us to the YMCA with him every day after school.”

While Eddie Brown Sr. was also adept with a Louisville Slugger and a foil, it was as a boxer that he really made his mark on New Orleans sports history as a boxer, fighting against an array of regional and national standouts, fighters with flamboyant names, fervent followings and impressive cache.

Eddie “Kid” Brown’s WWII draft card.

However, unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, Kid’s celebrity remained limited to the African-American community. Much like the Nego Leagues and other black baseball players and clubs, info on black boxers’ exploits can be quite difficult to find, something Eddie Brown Jr. learned right away. Longtime, respected boxing publications like The Ring frequently short-changed or altogether omitted coverage of African-American pugilists, especially during segregation in the South.

Still, the proud son did manage to glean some information about his dad.

“I was trying to get his boxing records from the list at Ring Magazine and was getting nowhere because they didn’t keep accurate boxing records of African Americans back then,” Eddie Jr. told me. “I know for a fact that he fought for many years based on the amount of newspaper articles I had read as a child. Ring had only a few fights listed, I know that he beat Chocolate Bon Bon in NYC and was bold enough to sit on the corner post because it was a headline in the New York paper that I read.”

While Eddie Brown Sr.’s fighting career, much of it as a lightweight or a welterweight, spanned nearly a decade from the late 1920s to the mid- to late ’30s, arguably the heady height of his fame occurred during a two-year span from 1933-35, a stretch that found his name and photo splashed across the sports pages of the Louisiana Weekly and in wire reports across the country.

The second installment of this tale will (hopefully) be published next week. As usual, thank you for reading, and happy holidays!

Biography of Ted Strong Jr. brings light to two-sport star

Ted Strong Jr. (left) with Memphis Red Sox player Joe Henry. (Photo Courtesy of NoirTech Research, Inc.)

Ted Strong Jr. holds a unique place in African-American sports history. Much like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, Strong excelled in two sports for years; Strong starred in the Negro Baseball Leagues and for the legendary Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.

As such, Strong could be compared to fellow Negro League standouts like Cum Posey, the Homestead Grays magnate and early black basketball star who is the only person inducted into both the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; or to Fats Jenkins, who prowled Negro League outfields and helped revolutionize hoops with the Harlem Rens and whom I’ve previously profiled on this blog.

Fortunately, a 2016 book by my friend and colleague Sherman Jenkins entitled, “Ted Strong Jr.: The Untold Story of an Original Harlem Globetrotter and Negro Leagues All-Star,” has illuminated the life and career of Ted Strong Jr., a forgotten legend who excelled in two sports at a time of strict, tragic segregation in American sports. What’s more, Sherman built the book upon a solid foundation of friendship and familiarity with Strong’s family, giving the volume a warm, intimate feel.

Below is a lightly-edited, email interview I recently conducted with Sherman about his book …

RW: What prompted you to research and write about Ted Strong? Do you have a personal connection to him?

SJ: I knew Ted Strong Jr.’s father, Ted Strong Sr. I grew up with Ted Sr.’s children from his second marriage. We grew up on the South Side of Chicago in Woodlawn. I wrote an article about the senior Strong (see attached). Strong Sr. liked the article and told me that I needed to meet Ted Jr., who was the oldest child from Ted Sr.’s first marriage. I was scheduled to meet Ted Jr. but two weeks before our meeting, he suffered an asthma attack and died at the age of 61. Ted Sr. and Jr. had the same first, middle and last name. The only designation was Senior and Junior.

Ted Strong Jr. (Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.).

RW: What were the biggest challenges you faced when undertaking this project? Did you have a hard time finding human sources for the project? What about other sources? How much is out there about Ted?

SJ: The biggest challenges were finding people who were still alive and who played with or against Ted Jr. Moreover, I wrote the article about Ted Sr. in 1977. Life happened, and it wasn’t until 2013 that I worked to complete my research and write the book.

RW: How would you describe Ted Strong as an athlete, and as a person?

SJ: From what I could glean from various news articles in the black press, he was competitive, a gentle giant and, as his friend Buck O’Neil told me, “Ted moved as the wind blew.” He was an easy-going guy. O’Neil also said that Ted Jr. was the best athlete he had ever seen. Several family members told me that he was a fun-loving man who made family get-togethers fun.

RW: Do you feel Ted has received the amount of recognition and respect he’s due? How do we tell people what an incredible athlete and human being he was?

SJ: No. Researchers and the general public seem to focus on the staple [Negro League] names: Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige. I try to focus on [Ted’s] stats: seven-time Negro Leagues All-Star, 1946 home run champion, member of the 1940 World Basketball Champions Harlem Globetrotters, member of the Globetrotter team that defeated the all-white Minneapolis Lakers featuring George Mikan in 1948.

RW: What has been the reaction to your book from the public? Has it been positive?

SJ: Reaction has been positive. People ask why they haven’t heard about him until now. Take a look at comments about the book on Amazon.

Ted Strong Jr. striking his baseball pose in his Globetrotters uniform. Ted, Jr. was among the many players the Globetrotters publicized to marketed the team to fans. In news releases promoting an upcoming Globetrotter game, the publicist would state that Ted Jr. had the largest hands in basketball. (Photo credit: Harlem Globetrotters).

RW: What were some of the more interesting nuggets of information about Strong that you discovered during this process?

SJ: Per Strong Sr., Ted Jr. had asthma, but it didn’t seem to affect him, although, an asthma attack took his life. He was very respectful of his elders. Moreover, he played himself in two movies about the Globetrotters: “The Harlem Globetrotters Story” and “Go Man Go!”

RW: Now the tough question: was Ted Strong a better baseball player, or a better basketball player?

SJ: I would say baseball. Seven-time Negro League All-Star, [for] which … the players were selected by readers of black newspapers across the country. Although, in basketball he was a rock in the post and marketed by the Globetrotters as having the largest hands in basketball.

Sherman Jenkins’ biography of Ted Strong Jr. can be purchased on Amazon here.

Sherman Jenkins

Sherman L. Jenkins has been a researcher of the Negro Leagues, and specifically Ted Strong Jr., and working with Ted Strong Sr. over the last 30 years. Jenkins is a member of SABR Negro League Committee, and the book “Ted Strong, Jr.: The Untold Story of an Original Harlem Globetrotter and Negro League All-Star” was published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers of Maryland in October 2016.

New Oscar Charleston book chronicles legend’s story

Oscar Charleston in 1922 (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth P. Overton estate.)

Whenever I’m prompted to discuss the greatest baseball players of all time, my answer is usually quite succinct: Oscar Charleston is the GOAT, and he most likely always will be. He was a five-tool player times 10, someone who casts a shadow over person I believe is the best MLB figure of all time, Willie Mays. Add in his supreme intelligence, cagey savvy and unquenchable fire, and there’s no one — not even Ruth, Mays, Cobb, Gibson — who can touch Oscar Charleston.

I’ll admit that I’m a little biased because of the seven and a half years I lived in Indiana, Oscar’s home state (he’s an Indianapolis native), and because I wrote an article about him years ago myself. I’ve been to his grave in Floral Park Cemetery, and I’ve strode through Oscar Charleston Park in North Center Indianapolis).

But regardless, there’s never been a comprehensive biography of Charleston that’s done justice to his talent, his influence, his success and his legacy. But Jeremy Beer has changed that with “Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player,” an exhaustive tome chronicling the Oscar Charleston story, and it’s destined to become a classic, just like Oscar himself.

Below is my recent, lightly-edited email interview with Jeremy Beer …)

RW: Given that Oscar Charleston is one of the greatest players and figures in baseball history, why do you think it took so long for someone to set about writing a book about him? What prompted you to take on the challenge and work through it?

JB: Well, oddly enough, we have full biographies of only two or three players who spent their entire careers in the Negro Leagues to begin with (Rube Foster, Josh Gibson and I think one other), so Oscar isn’t the only player who has been neglected. You would think that the burgeoning of African-American Studies departments would have led to a plethora of biographies and in-depth studies, but that hasn’t happened, for some reason. Also, until recently most old newspapers weren’t digitized. That the vast, vast majority of them are now online and easily searchable with one or two subscriptions was a huge help to my work — I probably couldn’t have reasonably undertaken it otherwise. So maybe that’s another reason: that only recently has everyday documentation of the past been so readily available to us.

I took on the challenge for two reasons: (1) I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of Oscar when I encountered Bill James’s ranking of him as the fourth greatest player of all time — if others also didn’t know him, that seemed like an obvious and regrettable injustice; and (2) Oscar, like me, was from Indiana, which meant it would be even more fun and satisfying to tell his story.

RW: What were the biggest challenges you encountered when conducting research and writing the book? How did you overcome them and get to the nitty gritty of Oscar’s life?

JB: The biggest challenge is that the trail is cold. Oscar has been dead for 65 years. I got started too late to talk to too many ex-players; as you know, their number has dwindled dramatically in the last 10 years or so. Oscar didn’t leave any descendants. Maddeningly, the nine brothers and sisters who lived to adulthood didn’t seem to leave much of a descendant trail either — my family tree for Oscar was exceedingly difficult to fill out after his generation. In short, there just weren’t that many people to talk to, at least not that I could find (someone else might do better than me on this).

But I talked to everyone I could, and three other things really helped. First, I made contact with Oscar’s wife Jane’s niece and her daughter. They were tremendously cooperative and helpful and helped me fill out some details of Oscar’s personal life. They also had some great photos and other personal effects to share with me. Second, I had access to Oscar’s personal scrapbook and photo album, which are held at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City. 

Jeremy Beer

Those items offered precious windows into Oscar’s personality, interests, and character. I relied on them heavily. And third, sportswriter John Schulian graciously shared with me all of the notes he had taken when writing a profile on Oscar for Sports Illustrated in the early 2000s. Those notes included interview transcriptions with a number of players who had played with and for Oscar. All praise to John (who created Xena, Warrior Princess, by the way) for being such a mensch.

Then, of course, all the census data, ship manifests, birth and death certificates, draft cards—all of that stuff helped tremendously, and fortunately most of it is available on these days. These are good times for a biographer!

RW: How would you describe Charleston as a player, as a manager and as a human being? What were some of his biggest traits, strengths and weaknesses?

JB: As a player: intensely competitive with a nearly maniacal drive to win. Dynamic. Energy pouring out of him. Twitchy at the plate, always pumping the bat up and down. Talkative, including trash-talkative. Aggressive, taking the extra base whenever he could and sometimes when he couldn’t. Rather unconcerned with your personal safety. And needless to say, truly excellent at almost everything (he may have had only an average or just above-average throwing arm). As of right now, he has three of top seven best offensive seasons, by OPS+, in the database (and five of the top 16, minimum 300 plate appearances) and has more of lots of counting stat than any other Negro Leagues player: hits, doubles, triples, runs, walks, stolen bases. (He is second to Gibson in home runs and RBIs.) He played a very shallow defensive center field and was lauded for more than a decade for his ranginess out there.

Oscar Charleston’s death certificate

As a manager: Oscar was a natural leader, first and foremost. His managerial style was not democratic, nor was there anything new-school about it. He demanded effort, punctuality and attentiveness. He also believed in the principles of “scientific baseball” as taught by his mentor C. I. Taylor, who signed Charleston to play with the Indianapolis ABCs in 1915. You didn’t screw around with Oscar as a player, but at the same time he had your back and was lauded by Crawfords players of the 1930s for the way he bonded them together as a team. He was voted the greatest manager in Negro Leagues history in one poll conducted 20 or 30 years ago.

As a human being: charming, charismatic, friendly, self-disciplined (he neither drank nor smoked). Said to have been an accomplished pool player and a good singer. He dressed well and was not unattractive to women, to the detriment of his marriage with Jane. Perhaps most importantly, he was really intelligent. He only went to school through the eighth grade in Indianapolis, but he nevertheless seems to have taught himself how to read, write and speak Spanish remarkably quickly while he played winter ball in Cuba. The intelligence is further confirmed by the sorts of friends and associates he preferred — almost always college-educated, socially accomplished types. He seems to have taken a lively interest in the issues of his day, including civil rights.

I’ve mentioned a lot of strengths already, so among the weaknesses would be hot-headedness during competition. He got into more fights than he should have on the field. He could be overly stern as a manager, and he wasn’t regarded as an innovator in that regard. And he was a proud man — not arrogant, but proud, and that probably hurt him at times.

RW: Many legends describe Oscar Charleston as “the black Ty Cobb,” not just for his incredible accomplishments as a player, but also for his irascibility, temper and boldness. Would you agree with that assessment? Or was Charleston more complex and misunderstood than that?

JB: So Charleston was like Cobb on the field in several ways, yes. He might spike you coming into a base and figure that was part of the game. When you were playing against him, you probably didn’t much care for his style; Buck Leonard certainly didn’t. But that’s about as far as I would go. Cobb, although he has been partially rehabilitated by Charles Leehrsen, was not very popular with some teammates and many others. He was moody and brooding, at least at times. And he definitely got into some scrapes and scandals off the field. Charleston was a more popular and likeable character, by contrast. I wouldn’t say he was irascible. He doesn’t seem to have been touched by the melancholic aura that surrounded Cobb, nor was he as concerned about preserving his own reputation. When sportswriters called him the “Black Ty Cobb” early in his career, it was mostly just a way of saying, “This guy is the best we have.”

RW: Some, including the great Buck O’Neil, felt and still feel that Oscar was simply the greatest of all time, regardless of race, league or era. Would you agree? Why or why not?

JB: I think it would really be stretching it to rank him ahead of Ruth, in terms of how much he towered over his contemporaries. But I think you could make a reasonable case against literally everyone else (besides Mays and maybe Honus Wagner, the best competition comes from Josh Gibson). I’ve imagined an alternative Oscar who played in the white majors and concluded that, look, we know he was incredibly durable, we know that his speed and defense would have translated easily to that game. Maybe he would have faced more consistently good pitching.

Headstone application for Oscar Charleston

Fine: let’s give him a career OPS+ of 140 (it was 174 in the Negro Leagues), 250 career home runs (he had 209 against major black competition, in a little more than half the career plate appearances of Willie Mays), 400 career stolen bases (he had 354), and make him an above replacement defender (so, a defensive Wins Above Replacement above 0). Who else has done that in the majors? Only Barry Bonds, who presumably had a little chemical help. And we are being *very* conservative with our alternative Oscar’s numbers here. So that’s one way of answering your question.

I will say, too, that you can make a solid argument that Charleston has the best overall resume of anyone who ever played the game, when you take into account not only his stellar playing performance but also his managerial record and his record as a scout. It’s worth mentioning that not only did he lead Negro Leagues teams to championships as a manager, but he also seems to have managed a semi-pro team in Philadelphia’s Industrial League during World War II. Why does that matter? Because it was an *integrated* team, five years before Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers. That was pioneering. So was the scouting work he did for Branch Rickey in 1945, which I think probably makes Oscar the first African American to have paid to scout for a National League or American League team.

You put it all together and the resume is incredibly impressive.

World War II draft card

RW: Was there any person, source or organization that was particularly helpful as you pursued this project?

Tons! I’ve already mentioned John Schulian. Larry Lester was always generous and encouraging and shared photos, statistics — anything he had. Ray Doswell at the Negro Leagues Museum provided crucial assistance. Gary Ashwill gave me the day-by-day box scores for Oscar that underlie the stats on Seamheads. Ted Knorr in Harrisburg made key connections for me. Various librarians and archivists helped out. Ex-players gave me their time. Lots of others are mentioned by name in my Acknowledgments. And then I benefited so, so much from all the work done over the previous decades by Negro Leagues researchers like Robert Peterson, Donn Rogosin, John Holway, Neil Lanctot, Brent Kelley, Jim Bankes, and the list goes on. I am standing on the shoulders of giants in writing this book, to be sure.

RW: What has been the reaction and public response to the book?

JB: It’s been uniformly positive, fortunately. I do sometimes encounter skepticism that anyone as good as I claim Oscar was — or as James claimed he was—could actually have been so forgotten. Some people have a hard time believing historical memory can be so unjust. But it is! It’s not just Oscar and it’s not just Negro Leagues players who fall prey to the erasures of time. Other athletes, writers, inventors — there are plenty of stories out there to be recovered and re-told, especially the stories of those whose lives didn’t or still don’t fit convenient culturally dominant narratives. One of my jobs, as I see it, is to convince people that that’s the case.

Author bio

Jeremy Beer’s Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player was published by the University of Nebraska Press on November 1. Beer has published on sports, philanthropy, politics, and culture in outlets such as the Washington Post, National Review, the Washington Examiner, First Things, Modern Age, the Utne Reader and the Baseball Research Journal, among other venues. He is the author of The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) and the editor of America Moved: Booth Tarkington’s Memoirs of Time and Place, 1869–1928 (Wipf and Stock, 2015). He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Kara.

To purchase Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player, go to Amazon here or to the University of Nebraska Press Web site.