Author Alex Painter and his family at a Dayton Dragons game. All images are courtesy of Painter.
Editor’s note: The last several months here on Home Plate Don’t Move have been very Indiana-centric — I recently posted interviews with authors Sherman Jenkins and Jeremy Beer about their books about Hoosier natives Ted Strong Jr. and Oscar Charleston, respectively.
I continue that Hoosier State theme with an interview of Alex Painter, who recently published a volume about black baseball in his hometown of Richmond, Ind., “Blackball in the Hoosier Heartland: Unearthing the Negro Leagues Baseball History of Richmond, Indiana.” I haven’t received a copy yet, but judging from Alex’s lively, insightful answers below, I can’t wait to dig into the book.
My own strong personal connections to Indiana and my research and writing about the Hoosier State, as well as my own fascination with black baseball in small-town American, further piqued my interest in Alex’s book, so I enthusiastically endorsed the new tome by Alex Painter, and I guarantee you’ll love this interview. Enjoy!
Ryan Whirty: How did you become interested in the Negro Leagues and black baseball in Indiana? What about it drew you to the subject?
Alex Painter: That’s a great question; as far as a flashpoint, I am not sure I have one. When I was a kid in the 1990s, I was given a book written by David Nemec called Baseball: More than 150 Years. Kind of a typical baseball anthology. But after reading every single page as a youngster, I was completely enamored with the likes of Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell. The interest has always seemed to stick. The fact that Larry Doby and Satchel Paige [the Cleveland Indians] also played for my favorite team was a plus!
As far as Indiana in particular, I am a Hoosier by birth, born in Fort Wayne. After studying history at Earlham College in Richmond, I actually have lived in this part of the state ever since graduating. Living here in Richmond, I was aware that Bob Feller and Satchel Paige’s All-Stars had made a stop here during their famous 1946 tour, and I had heard that Josh Gibson had allegedly connected on a legendary home run in one of the local parks. While working on a different book about Cleveland Indians slugger Luke Easter a couple years ago, I started poking around the local papers, and was able to firm up some facts. I put a pin in it for the time being, and was able to circle back around to it last year, when I began my history of the Negro Leagues in Richmond.
In my opinion, what is really neat about Indiana’s relationship with the Negro Leagues, even with Indianapolis and the Indianapolis teams notwithstanding, is just how many games were played here. If teams wanted to drive to St. Louis, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, Detroit or Chicago, they more than likely had to pass through Indiana. Games were constantly being hosted by large-to-mid-size cities like Terre Haute, Lafayette, Muncie, Fort Wayne and South Bend, and even small cities like Richmond, where most of my focus is. Knowing what we know about the itinerant, barnstorming baseball lifestyle, playing the smaller venues helped balance the books, while giving locals access an opportunity to see the best baseball players they’d see in their lifetimes. That is probably what is most interesting to me – the unassuming nature of that symbiotic relationship.
As far as the book was concerned, I started with trying to find every contest that featured a Negro Leagues team that took place in Richmond. I ended up finding well over one hundred between 1907 and 1957. Shocked at all the contests I was able to find, I then took another pass through all the games and recorded every single player or manager I could confirm was in Richmond with their clubs. That tally came to just a shade over 350 different players. After going through all my data, it was then I decided to go forward with the chronology, which eventually became the book.
RW: Indiana, for better or for worse, has always been known as a “basketball state,” at least to many Hoosiers and general observers. How involved, active and successful historically was the baseball community and culture in the state, and in particular, how much of a black baseball scene was there over the decades, and has that history been overlooked over the years?
AP: First, so true! You absolutely have hit the nail on the head with how the state is perceived. I read that when the high school basketball tournament started in Indiana in the early 1910s, there were only a dozen schools who participated. Less than three decades later, there were nearly eight hundred schools competing in the tournament. “Hoosier Hysteria,” the Indiana’s love affair with basketball, has gripped the state since the early 1950s.
Advertisement in the Palladium-Item about a game between two Negro Leagues titans in 1954.
I think that is what makes Indiana’s baseball history, particularly before 1950, so endearing. Much of it has been lost to history. If not lost, per se, it has certainly been obscured. For a state like Indiana, who never really had a “major league” team, so much of that baseball history lies within the Negro Leagues. I am sure if I were to tell people that even a small city like Richmond, Ind. (population 35,000), played host to 19 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who were also members of the Negro Leagues, some eyebrows would certainly raise. But it’s true! As I mentioned, Richmond played host to well over one hundred contests involving professional blackball or Negro Leagues clubs over a five-decade span.
Through the first two decades of the 20th century, three of the best and highest-acclaimed blackball teams were from Indiana. When the Negro National League formed in 1920, most are familiar that the Indianapolis ABCs were among the charter members. In future decades, the Indianapolis Clowns had an incredible amount of staying power, playing well into the 1980s. Indiana’s mark on Negro Leagues baseball was indelible, and was essential to their genesis and survival.
RW: Most casual Negro Leagues fans know about the ABCs and the Clowns, but how rich is the baseball heritage before those teams were established, and did the black baseball scene thrive in other parts of the state? Were there black teams in Fort Wayne and Evansville, Kokomo and Bloomington, Gary and Terre Haute?
AP: Absolutely. Though the teams that are best-remembered were located mostly Indianapolis, there were local, semi-professional black teams. Every once in a while, these teams might get a headlining black star from the big city. One such case was when one of the best-named teams in black baseball, the Kokomo Black Devils signed George “Rabbit” Shively in 1919 – since I am a big fan of your writing, a fact I know you are keenly aware of!
I am a bit less familiar with the local landscape in the other cities, but I can certainly attest that Richmond had organized black baseball dating back to 1885 with the Wayne Colored Base Ball Club. There were several versions of the Richmond Giants/Colored Giants/Union Giants for the first couple decades of the twentieth century as well – all black clubs. The 1919 version of Richmond Giants and the Kokomo Black Devils actually appeared to have merged by season’s end, becoming the “Hoosier Giants.”
RW: One of the facets of Indiana baseball that’s always fascinated me was the surprisingly important role the sport played for many years at the spas and resorts in French Lick. Talk a little bit about that activity and history, if you can.
AP: Indeed! The West Baden Sprudels and the French Lick Plutos were rival blackball clubs that were sponsored by competing resort spas that were situated on the same salt lick and mineral spring. The resorts were then, and still are, located less than two miles from each other. Many of the ballplayers would work at the spas throughout the week, and then play games in the evenings or on the weekends. Naturally, many people know of French Lick because of Larry Bird, but these places were truly isolated geographically at the time (and still kind of are). It was amazing the talent these clubs were able to draw into rural Indiana.
A lot of noteworthy ballplayers got their starts on the resort teams. West Baden in particular. In 1913, all four of the baseball-playing Taylor Brothers (“Steel Arm Johnny,” C.I., “Candy Jim” and Ben) suited up at some point for the Sprudels. C.I. was the one typically pulling the strings. In my opinion, one of the most overlooked occurrences in Negro Leagues history was when C.I. and Ben Taylor moved to Indianapolis to help Tom Bowser run the Indianapolis ABCs. The other Taylors would join the team in due time, but if the ABCs were good before, they became a national powerhouse once they arrived. The move also gave the soon-to-be burgeoning Negro National League another steady franchise they could count on a few years later, and Rube Foster a worthy right-hand executive for the NNL in C.I. Taylor.
RW: Aside from the well known, legendary Oscar Charleston, who were some of the other talented, successful Negro Leaguers who were born and raised in the state? Who is your favorite Hoosier State Negro Leaguer?
AP: My kind of question! John Merida immediately comes to mind. Truly, you can consider Merida and Charleston two of the “main characters” in Blackball in the Hoosier Heartland. Whoever is reading this has probably heard of Charleston, [but] let me tell you a bit about Merida. I am beyond excited to breathe life into his story.
He was born in Spiceland, Ind. – conveniently, just about 30 miles and one county west of where most of my research is based. His parents were born before the American Civil War in the South, so it’s very much in the realm of possibility they were born into slavery, though I couldn’t confirm. Anyways, Merida is born in Spiceland and grows into this huge, brawny frame – from my estimation, easily over six foot and probably close to the 200-pound mark. Because of his stature, he was quickly nicknamed “Big Boy,” and is a natural catcher. He is the best athlete in town by a far cry. He has strength, speed, agility, the whole nine yards. Folks like him so much in Spiceland and Henry County that he permitted to play on the all-white baseball teams as the only black player, starting his career at the Quaker-based Spiceland Academy at the turn of the century. As you know, that was incredibly rare for the time, with only a handful of instances across the country. Through the Indiana Historical Society, I was able to locate a few photographs of Merida from about 1900. He was pictured with three white teammates in one, and another showed him as the only black individual among dozens of participants at the annual Spiceland Field Day (he won the 100-yard dash). The photographs, preserved on glass plates, are simply beautiful.
Merida is incredibly affable and unwaveringly friendly. After every game at Spiceland Academy, he would get mobbed by all the fans (especially the children), regardless if they won or lost. It was because of his friendliness he garnered his more famous nickname – “Snowball.” After his time was over at the Academy, he played for local semi-pro teams all over east central Indiana, sometimes still being the only black player on the team. Merida got his big break in 1907, when he was signed by the Indianapolis ABCs.
Here is where the story got very fun to me. The first documented game in Richmond with an out-of-town, professional blackball team was with none other than Merida’s 1907 ABCs. They squared off against a local minor league team, the Richmond Quakers. That was where I first met Merida – I simply couldn’t believe that there was a guy in the starting lineup for the ABCs from Spiceland (a city of less than a thousand with a 0.1-percent black population). That’s when I fell down the Merida rabbit hole. I actually dedicated the entire book to him (and my family of course), and if I can find enough about him, I have pledged to myself to write a book or even documentary about him at some point.
Merida quickly gains the respect of his teammates as a selfless player – he even plays the unfamiliar second base position since the ABCs already had an established catcher, Will “Shinny” Primm (a great nickname for a catcher) in 1907-08. He is also just tearing the cover off the baseball. Thanks to excellent research done by ABCs historian Paul Debono, we know that in just 33 games, Merida notched 40 hits, 13 doubles, three triples and three home runs. Seamheads has him as a career .349 hitter. In 1908 and 1909, he is named manager of the ABCs, becoming just the second documented manager in team history.
It has been alleged that Oscar Charleston was a bat boy for the ABCs as a kid. If this is true, he would have certainly been Merida’s bat boy when he was 13 or 14 years old in 1908 and/or 1909. Talk about full circle!
John Merida’s obituary
Merida heads north for the 1910 season, playing in Minnesota. He signs the most lucrative contract of his life to head west and play for the Kansas City Royal Giants for the 1911 season. He never has the opportunity to suit up; as he entered the hospital on May 9, and died on May 13 of spinal meningitis at age 31 or 32 (his actual birth date is unknown, only his birth month of May and year of 1879). Pretty much the same affliction that Indians pitcher Addie Joss succumbed to almost exactly a month before, at the same age.
Merida’s tributes all had a common thread – a no-doubt big league player … if only he were white.
In addition to Merida, Ted Strong Jr. is another awesome Hoosier. He was from South Bend, and one of the original dual-sport stars suiting up for the Harlem Globetrotters and the Kansas City Monarchs. Sherman Jenkins wrote a spirited biography on him a couple years back. George Crowe is another. He actually made it to the big leagues after playing in the Negro Leagues, but he was from Whiteland, Ind. He played in the majors, saying he was a few years younger than he actually was. Though he was born in Lima, Ohio, Connie Day spent nearly his entire life in Indiana. He was a super-flashy infielder – I like to think of him as Ozzie Smith five decades before Ozzie Smith. Jack ‘“The Fighting Poor Boy” Hannibal is another favorite. He was an outfielder, born in Indianapolis. If the nickname wasn’t a giveaway, he was also a boxer. On Labor Day 1918, he played a doubleheader in Richmond during the afternoon and then sparred six rounds in a boxing exhibition in the evening.
I know I am probably missing some other cool ones. But, like I said, this was my kind of question!
RW: What were some of the most surprising nuggets you found? How many excellent new facts that came out?
AP: To me, the story of John Merida was a revelation to this book. He had been covered somewhat sparsely in a couple other spots, but I tried to tie it all together and tell a story of local interest.
The big one is the story of the 1918 Richmond Giants. There is a little backstory and the crazy-interesting confluence of inciting factors and events that had to happen for this team to come to be.
First, a split in the ranks of the ABCs occurred in 1916. This essentially meant there were two ABC clubs, one ran by C.I. Taylor, and the other by Thomas Bowser. The “Bowser ABCs” played their games at Northwestern Park, the “Taylor ABCs” played at Federal League Park. Logistical problems arose during 1917 when Federal League Park was demolished, which essentially forced both ABC squads (Bowser had sold his team to Warner Jewell, so they then became the “Jewell ABCs”) and the Indianapolis Indians to split two parks, Northwestern and Washington. Three teams in two stadiums sounds far from ideal, and it was. The Jewell ABCs played second fiddle to Taylor’s ABCs as far as stadium booking. So, in 1918, they decided to become a permanent barnstorming outfit. This lasted for two terrible months of lopsided defeats and failing to show up for booked games. Jewell’s ABCs sought a more permanent home park for an entire month – during which most of the players had gone home or found new teams.
Coincidentally, Richmond, Ind., had a brand-new stadium, Exhibition Park, built in 1917, but no team to play in it. The city had fielded the Richmond Quakers in the Central League minor league circuit during the 1917 season, but the league closed shop during the 1918 season due to World War I sapping the strength of the teams, and attendance issues. The city was faced with a brand-new, 2,000-seat stadium sitting empty on the weekend. One plus one equaled two here. Jewell’s ABCs needed a home, Exhibition Park needed a team. Poof! The Richmond Giants were announced in June 1918.
But, most of the team had gone home. In fact, there were only three players on the roster for the Richmond Giants that were holdovers from Jewell’s ABCs’ last game the previous month. One was 20-year-old infielder Connie Day. The roster needed to be filled, and quick. Among those who suited up for the Richmond Giants was 36-year-old first baseman George Board, who was the first manager of the original ABCs just before John Merida; third baseman James Lynch, who had played for West Baden, French Lick and both ABC clubs; the aforementioned Jack “The Fighting Poor Boy’” Hannibal, and … drum roll … The “Hoosier Comet” himself, Oscar Charleston. Charleston was only 21 and in the midst of the breakout stretch of his career. Had this team formed one year later, Charleston would have been far too good or even famous to play for a small town’s weekend semi-pro team. I absolutely loved Jeremy Beer’s Charleston biography, but, best I can tell, this is the first anyone has heard of his involvement with this team. Naturally, this is one of the discoveries I am hanging my hat on.
Box score from the Richmond Giants’ first game, with Oscar Charleston listed.
But, there’s more! For the final weekend of the season in September (Charleston was gone by this time, back in the army), the Giants plucked a 17-year-old off the Indianapolis sandlots to throw a game on a Sunday and Monday to conclude the campaign. During the first game, Sunday, this youngster pitched a complete game against the white Muncie Valentines, undefeated on the season and stocked with seasoned veterans, allowing only one hit and striking out 11 hitters in a 6-1 Giants victory. The following day, he pitched another complete game, this time against Richmond’s Sunday Baseball League (SAL) All-Star team. He struck 13 more guys out in an eventual loss. Two days, 24 innings, 24 strikeouts, 17 years old.
Bill Holland (standing, first from left) with the 1920 Detroit Stars.
This is the first documented game of Bill “Devil” Holland – one of the best pitchers in Negro Leagues history and the first black pitcher to throw a pitch at Yankee Stadium. History states his career began with Jewell’s ABCs in 1919, when he was 18. We now know it began a year earlier, with the Richmond Giants, the artist formerly known as Jewell’s ABCs, as a 17-year-old. He was a member of the Richmond Giants for a time the following season, as well as throwing for Jewell’s ABCs, and being among those who folded into the aforementioned Hoosier Giants with the Kokomo Black Devils. He pitched until 1941. According to Seamheads, only nine pitchers in Negro Leagues history won more games than Devil Holland. He should be in the Hall of Fame.
Needless to say, I am super proud of my 1918 Richmond Giants. They are chronicled heavily in the book. If it seems like you’re the first person I am officially telling this tale to, you would be correct, so the excitement may be bubbling. With such an increased interest in the leagues and Charleston, I was paranoid someone would find the 1918 Giants and post about it somewhere before the book went live! I actually discovered an article about the team while looking for box scores of a game between Taylor’s ABCs and the Cuban Giants that happened in Richmond that season as well. I was completely floored.
In 1933, the Chicago American Giants came to town to play the semi-pro Richmond Lincos, sponsored locally by the Lincos Gas Company. They weren’t particularly good, roughly a .500 ball club, but they absolutely took it to the Giants, 9-4. The Giants starting lineup featured none other than Willie Wells, Mule Suttles and Turkey Stearnes. Pitcher Bill Foster came in the game late for a pinch-hitting appearance, which meant the Lincos defeated four members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Though improbable, the Giants losing to a middling, municipal, semi-pro team wouldn’t have been completely unheard of. What gives the game an extra layer of cool was the fact that the Lincos had Richmond product Wilbur Ewbank in the outfield. ‘“Weeb” was a high school teacher and football coach who played ball over the summer to supplement his income. Sixteen years later, Ewbank was on Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns staff, and nearly four decades after the game, he was the winning head coach of Joe Namath’s New York Jets during Super Bowl III. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, making it five hall of famers on the field that day. Wild!
Also of note, in 1938, the Homestead Grays came to town to square off against the Indianapolis Sterlings, a state semi-pro champion the season before. By this time, Richmond had a new field, Municipal Stadium, which was built in 1936 (and is still used today). At the time, according to the paper [the Richmond Palladium-Item], the left-field fence was 412 feet down the line. Definitely what you would call a pitcher’s park. Anyway, Josh Gibson became the first guy to plug one over the left-field fence! Get this, the feat wouldn’t happen again for, wait for it, nine seasons! 3,311 days, to be exact. And they had moved the fence in at least 12 feet!
And, finally, speaking of Charleston, his 1954 Indianapolis Clowns visited Richmond to play Buck O’Neil’s Kansas City Monarchs. This is noteworthy since Toni Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, the first three women to play professional Negro Leagues baseball, suited up. The Clowns won the game, and the subsequent Negro American League title. Less than one hundred days after the Richmond game, Charleston was dead.
RW: Finally, how much information, tradition and history about black baseball in Indiana is left to discover? Where do we as researchers and writers go from here as we continue to comb through history in Indiana?
AP: I think that is what is so thrilling about blackball and the Negro Leagues; there still seems like there is so much to discover. The statistics and team records are famously incomplete. I really think much of it comes down to good, old-fashioned gumshoeing, and looking through the primary sources. Often times, in my experience, Negro Leagues coverage wasn’t necessarily scarce, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult to find. That is what I found in Richmond. I couldn’t believe how rich the history is, but, frankly, you won’t find it unless you set out specifically for it. I think there is so much left to discover – particularly in an unheralded state like Indiana. The prospect of discovering more is exciting!
Alex Painter is a baseball fan who loves the Cleveland Indians and has a deep passion for the Negro Leagues. He has also written one other book, “Folk Hero Forever: The Eclectic, Enthralling Baseball Life of Luke Easter,” published in 2018. He studied American history and politics at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. He currently lives in Richmond with his wife, Alicia, and their children Greyson, Eleanor and Harper.
For further background about the Negro Leagues in Indiana, check out Paul Debono’s book about the Indianapolis ABCs.
Some other cool articles about Indiana black baseball can be found here, here, here and here, while — shameless self-promotion coming up — here, here, here and here are some of my posts about the subject.