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!

5 thoughts on “Satchmo’s Secret 9: a name behind a face

  1. Pingback: Kid Brown boxes his way into NOLA history | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  2. Pingback: ‘Bedlam broke in the crowded arena’ | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  3. Pingback: Kid Brown’s saga comes to a conclusion | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  4. Pingback: An influential photographer, a mysterious vanishing | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  5. Pingback: The Photo: The Secret 9 wraps up (for now) | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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