New book celebrates Hoosier hero John Merida

John Merida. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.)

Editor’s note: My good buddy and fellow Hoosier dude Alex Painter just followed up his outstanding first book, “Blackball in the Hoosier Heartland,” with another chronicle with a distinctly Indiana flavor, this one about John “Snowball” Merida, a key figure from Alex’s previous book. Merida was many things — a brilliant shooting star, a prototypical five-tool player and segregation-era standout whose brief but illustrious life trajectory would find him crossing paths with not only famed Black legends — like Sol White, Ben Taylor and Bud Fowler — but also a few white major leaguers.

The new book, “Baseball Immortal: The Odyssey of Trailblazing Slugger John ‘Snowball’ Merida,” is now available to the public (links to purchase it at the end of this post), and I highly recommend it.

The following is a lightly-edited email interview I conducted with Alex about his new book and the player who instantly became a favorite for Alex …

Ryan Whirty: What was the genesis of the new book? How did you first learn about and become interested in John Merida?

Alex Painter: In 2019, I decided to start what I thought would be a little research project about all the Negro Leagues baseball activity that happened in Richmond, Ind. (where I live). I was absolutely shocked to find no fewer than 125 games were played here in a span between 1907 and 1957. After discovering and logging all the games, I realized I should have also been documenting all the players as well.

Now with a new mission, I dutifully started at the beginning – an Oct. 2, 1907, contest between the Indianapolis ABCs and the Richmond Quakers (a local minor league outfit from the old Indiana-Ohio League). Looking at the ABCs box score, I began to log the players, and the leadoff hitter was catcher/second baseman John Merida. Merida was literally the first player in this registry — one that would grow to over 350 players. Needless to say, I had never heard of him, but noted that the local Richmond paper called him “the best hitter in independent company, not excepting (Turkey) Mike Donlin.” I thought that was pretty interesting.

So, I scampered over to Seamheads to learn more about him – come to find out he was from Spiceland, Ind., just one county over from Richmond. That immediately caught my eye (perhaps because my favorite history professor in college is a Spiceland native). Spiceland is a very small, rural town, and I was not aware there was ever a Black population there (I was incredibly wrong on this front). I wrote down his nickname, “Snowball,” thinking it was kind of quirky and interesting. I also quickly noticed that he died less than four years after the 1907 game in May 1911 and he was also buried in Spiceland. 

1907 Indianapolis ABCs (John Merida, top row, fourth from left. Image from the Indianapolis Freeman.)

Anyway, with all my Richmond findings, I felt that I could write a history of Negro Leagues baseball through the lens of a small Midwestern city, which became Blackball in the Hoosier Heartland: Unearthing the Negro Leagues Baseball History of Richmond, Indiana. The entire time writing the book, I kept circling back to Merida, and, based on what I was finding, I grew completely enamored with him. I began Baseball Immortal when I was maybe only halfway finished with Blackball. 

RW: What about him, his life and his career drew you to his story?

AP: In a literal sense, it is one that hits home geographically. Merida played all over Richmond, including at my alma mater (Earlham College) a few times. I discovered he played at ball fields less than a mile in both directions from my home. His story is distinctly East Central Indiana. The grandfather of Daniel Reid Topping (former owner and president of the New York Yankees from mid-1940s through the mid-60s) gave a sizable donation to Earlham in 1900 to build an athletic facility – which would become known as Reid Field. Merida was the first Black baseball player I could confirm played there, which he did in 1901.

Anyway, a cursory Internet search of John Merida turned up some incredible glass plate images of him posing with some of his white Spiceland Academy teammates from 1900. He was a mainstay at catcher. [There is] another [photo] at the annual Spiceland Field Day around the same time – John was the only person of color in the entire photograph of approximately 75-100 people. The images are just beautiful. I thought it incredibly interesting that of all the places where the high school team was integrated at the turn of the century, it could be found in Spiceland. I just remember staring at the photographs, completely taken by them. 

Merida with Spiceland Academy teammates. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.)

So, I did two things that were absolutely critical to my understanding of my subject: first, I read (then re-read) Paul Debono’s excellent history of the Indianapolis ABCs, who John suited up for regularly from 1907-09. Second, I packed my then-6-year-old son Greyson in the car and we drove to Spiceland in January 2020. The small town is only about 30 miles from Richmond. We walked around the grounds of the Spiceland Friends Church (the former Spiceland Academy), and we hoofed through most of Spiceland’s cemetery trying to find his grave. We finally found it, and the headstone, dedicated in 1976, called him ‘Baseball Immortal’. I was so hooked.

Come to find out, John’s grave was unmarked for 65 years. A gentleman by the name of Richard Ratcliff raised the money, designed and dedicated the tombstone – he would later become the Spiceland and Henry County historian. He is still living, and I presented him a copy of the book – he beamed with pride.

After tracking him and his family in census data, I found out that his mother was born enslaved in Virginia, moving to Indiana after the Civil War. John was born in May of 1879 – the actual date is lost to history. Spiceland, being an old Quaker town, was a major stop on the Underground Railroad. I mean, many of the town officials were helping harbor the runaways and creating subterfuge to help them escape north. So, after the Civil War, many of those formerly enslaved returned to the small town, knowing the attitude was incredibly progressive for the time. Though he was very imposing, 6-foot-1, over 200 pounds, he garnered the nickname “Snowball” since he was so friendly and a fan-favorite around Spiceland, particularly with the children. Win or loss, he was mobbed by the crowd behind the plate after each game had concluded.

While the backstory on Spiceland explained his membership on the all-white Spiceland Academy team (1895-1903) – I also tracked him on no fewer than six other all-white teams around East Central Indiana, including stops in New Castle, Montpelier and Dublin before he started with the ABCs in 1907. He was just too good not to be included on these white teams. During this time, he was an absolute star everywhere he played. The consensus was clear – if he were a white man, he would be in the company of major leaguers. He was regularly heralded as both the best catcher in the state and the best power hitter any one had ever seen. When he played semi-pro ball in Montpelier, he became the first Black semi-pro player on a white team in Indiana since [Baseball Hall of Famer] Sol White.

His career with the early Indianapolis ABCs, then owned by Ran Butler, was absolutely astounding. Playing the game while firmly entrenched in the Deadball Era, he slugged the baseball in a way that George Herman Ruth would popularize later. No hyperbole intended. He was gifted in every way on the baseball diamond – hitting for average, vast amounts of power, swiping bases, and playing sound defense (even after switching positions to second base with the ABCs). In 1908, he was called the “terror of all pitchers” by the Indianapolis Freeman. He was muscling the ball to all fields, and was probably among the fastest guys on the diamond – even at his size. There just weren’t any weaknesses in his game. To back the claim up, I logged every statistic I could find from every game I could find from every single game and compiled them – he was just amazing.

After his three-year stint with the ABCs, Merida went north to play for the Minneapolis Keystones in 1910. Despite having a belligerent, cantankerous owner (okay, he was pretty much an asshole, pardon my French) named Kidd Mitchell, the club still thrived, despite being practically ostracized from their home state due to Mitchell’s behavior. Chalk that one up to ace pitcher/manager “Big Bill” Gatewood, who somehow kept everything from falling apart.

In 1911, Merida decided to head west to play for the Kansas City Royal Giants, who were co-founded by “Topeka Jack” Johnson the season before. The Giants had an incredibly ambitious spring training tour in 1911 — spanning six Southern states and trekking no fewer than 3,000 miles. But, sadly, Merida never had the opportunity to play in a regular season game. He was admitted to the hospital on May 9, 1911, with symptoms of spinal meningitis before ultimately succumbing four days later. It happened just that quickly. Very similar to Addie Joss, who was roughly the same age and had died of meningitis just the month before. 

Muncie Evening Press, Sept. 3, 1902

After the obituaries (literally all of which made the claim he should have been playing in the major leagues), he was soon completely forgotten – relegated to the myth, lore and legend of Spiceland. After the founding of the Negro National League in 1920, many of the brilliant players from beforehand were greatly obscured or just forgotten. Buried in an unmarked grave for over six decades, John fit in the latter category. Thank God for Richard Ratcliff for keeping his story alive – my trail would have probably gone cold if not for him.

RW: What were some of the biggest challenges and obstacles you encountered when researching and writing the book?

AP: Man, honestly just the same I suppose as others who are trying to resurrect obscure or flat-out hidden stories – reading what seemed like endless pages of newspaper trying to gather the story … and even more to gather adequate context. Ryan, you know this as well as anyone, sometimes you write and have to be judicious about what to use because there is so much out there on particular subjects … other times you feel like you are inventing the wheel. That was what was easily most challenging but also equally exciting. Every find was exhilarating, every great game was cause for celebration. I knew I had a story – I just had to find more of it!

RW: What are some of the best anecdotes and nuggets of information about Merida and his life?

AP: How many Black catchers around this time were able to catch a major leaguer in a game? In 1904, while playing for the Krell-French Piano Company team, John (again as the only Black player on the team) regularly caught Jot Goar, a veteran of both the Reds and Pirates.

I had actually already plotted the entire book out before I found yet another amazingly cool chapter of John’s playing career; in early 1905, I had read a stray line out of a local paper that John received a contract offer for a Black baseball team in Cincinnati. Only after a deep plunge into the Cincinnati rags did I discover that John actually suited up for Bud Fowler’s Cincinnati Black Tourists that year! I was shook. I am a huge Fowler fan – I was so happy to find the association between the men. I may have been pumping my fists in the company of no one. Even though the Black Tourists fizzled after a couple months, I thought it was still amazing.

Indianapolis Freeman, July 11, 1908

As it were, Merida also played in the first Sunday football game in Indianapolis city history in 1906. Coincidentally, it was played at Northwestern Field, where the ABCs also played. He scored three touchdowns in the game for the Hoosier Tigers. After the game, someone wrote a poem to commemorate the occasion; Merida was listed by name.

Just to add to the legend a little bit here – he not only caught a former white big league catcher, he also hit a home run off a future Hall of Famer. In 1909, Merida hit a round tripper off then-pitcher Ben Taylor of the Birmingham Giants. Taylor would go on to a Hall of Fame career at first base, mostly for the ABCs. 

RW: How would you sum up the John Merida story — his personality, his prowess on the field, his life off the field and his legacy?

AP: Ryan, the guy was sensational – and the proof lies in the papers, statistics and the opinions of others. Shortly after a 1907 game between his Leland Giants and the ABCs, Rube Foster pointed to Merida and said, “When it comes to hitting, Merida is a dangerous man.” High praise, indeed!

For a Deadball Era player, I put his 1908 campaign against anyone of the time. I mean anyone. He hit the ball to all fields, and consistently over the fence. He played excellent defense (he’d play five different positions with the ABCs). He’d steal bases. In the latter two areas, he was a prototypical player of the era … in the offensive category, he was nothing short of a pioneer, playing a style of ball that would be popularized a decade after his death. I used the word “trailblazing” in the title of the book because that is exactly what he was. With very little hyperbole, we can think of him as akin to George Herman Ruth – just earlier and not on the same stage. 

“Snowball” Merida at Earlham College. (Photo from “Spiceland’s Black Heritage” by Richard R. Ratcliff.)

To me, the way he was described, he just seemed like a friendly, easy-going guy. He was very social – ABCs owner Ran Butler gave him a job working in his saloon in the winter of 1907-08. He was very popular among his teammates – they’d sometimes rib him from the dugout if he didn’t have a hit on the day – he’d wink or doff his cap at them, and then explode on the next pitch.

Unfortunately, he played during that time that I think can be chronically overlooked; Blackball before the advent of the Negro National League or other more organized leagues. The fact of the matter is John Merida was that good while playing for one of the very best teams he could hope to play for or had access to in the first decade of the 20th century. 

Stories like John’s really remind us that there is still so much to discover.

For more information or to buy Alex Painter’s new book on John Merida, check out here or here.