The Photo: The Secret 9 wraps up (for now)

Here we return, one last time, to the Secret 9, the great Louis Armstrong’s semi-pro baseball team in early-1930s New Orleans. More specifically, we dive into the iconic photo of the club with their famous benefactor taken during Satchmo’s triumphant 1931 homecoming to the Crescent City.

My previous posts about the club and the picture are here, here, here and here; they can fill you in on the purpose for this study of the Secret 9, how the investigation began and the life of one of the players on the team, Eddie “Kid” Brown. In addition, here’s a post I did about Villard Paddio, the photographer who snapped the photo and who later vanished after leading from a river ferry.

In addition, I’ve also had articles about the Secret 9 and the iconic image published in other media outlets here and here.

This new post represents the final installment of my Secret 9 series, and we pick things up with the photo itself — specifically, the various versions of it out there, and how the photo might have come about. With the publication of this article, my series wraps up, but I encourage anyone who has information about the Secret 9, or if you have any questions or leads, and their portrait to email me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

Alrighty, let’s dive into the examination of the photo itself that concludes with a pretty awesome revelation. I want to describe the process I and some compatriots used to scrutinize these versions, and how collaboration is very often both the key to discovery and breakthrough, as well as one of the main elements in what makes such research so fun.

A very important note before we start digging: I and others who enjoined this effort were waist deep into the investigation, which both provided key answers as well as raised intriguing new questions and lines of inquiry on a seemingly daily basis. It became a down-the-rabbit-hole situation, and then the COVID-19 crisis hit, which created a significant hurdle blocking our research because we haven’t been able to view any of the photo copies and prints we’ve found, or those we’d heard about.

Between those two factors — getting lost within the thicket of information and the inability to do in-person research — I decided to go forward and publish what we did have, along with the many mysteries still to unravel and trails of history to explore. So this is by now means a completed work, for which I greatly apologize!

With that said, let’s go! …

Last year, as I was bearing down on my research about the Secret 9 photo, I realized that several prints or copies of the photo exist. There’s the one that has been the most disseminated and viewed, pictured below:

Photo courtesy of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University

This is the version that’s held by the Historic New Orleans Collection, as well as the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University and the New Orleans Jazz Museum collection (with minor changes in visbility and legibility in each copy). It’s also the one used by the International House Hotel, employees of which recruited my last year to research the Secret 9 photo and identify the players in the photo.

You can hopefully see the greeting and signature in the lower left-hand corner:

“My Pal Lee, Best Wishes From Little Joe Lindsey.”

Joe Lindsey (sometimes spelled Lindsay) was a member of Louis Armstrong’s band and a member of what would today be called the entourage around Satchmo. Lindsey famously took part in the aforementioned goof-around skit held before the Aug. 23, 1931, game between the Secret 9 and the Melpomene White Sox, another local semi-pro club. that was attended by Armstrong on his lengthy trip home at the height of his early fame. (The White Sox won, 6-1.)

I’m not really sure who “Lee” is in Lindsey’s signature. Perhaps Lee Blair, a guitarist and banjoist who played with Louis and his orchestra in the mid- to late-1930s? Or Lee Collins, a trumpeter from New Orleans who, like Armstrong and Armstrong’s mentor King Oliver, moved to Chicago in the 1920s and played with a slew of early jazz greats?

However, I got those possible identifications by doing just heavy Googling, so they’re guesses at best, and several archives and historians cautioned against making any unsubstantiated leaps when identifying people. I included my speculation partially to introduce readers to such influential and important artists as Oliver, Collins and Blair.

Joe Lindsey is probably pictured in the Secret 9 photo, back row, the first person to the right of the players. He’s wearing a round, striped straw hat.

Also note in this version that the bottom right-hand corner is torn off. That will be significant because …

A second version of this photo popped up when the folks at the IHH and I met with Eddie Brown Jr. and Marcus Brown, the son and grandson, respectively, of Eddie “Kid” Brown Sr., whom the Brown offspring had identified as the third player from the left in the back row.

That’s right, we ID’ed one of the guys in the iconic Secret 9 photo. And I previously wrote blog posts about “Kid” Brown here and here.

When the IHH holks (Sean Cummings and Stephanie Wellman) met with Eddie Jr. and Marcus roughly a year ago, the Brown’s brought their copy of the photo, shown below, in which Eddie Brown Sr. is circled:

Photo courtesy of the family of Eddie Brown

Being the supremely eagle-eyed, observant reporter I am (hopefully you picked up the sarcasm in that statement), I didn’t even really pay attention to the scribbling below the team in this, the Brown version. 

I didn’t examine that writing in detail — or, I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t even realize it was different than the writing in the HNOC/Hogan version — until I scrutinized it with my girlfriend and Tulane archivist Lori Schexnayder several months after meeting and talking with the Browns. Lori is really good at her job, as this tale will show as it unfolds. It was her diligence and eye for detail as an archivist that provided a major impetus for the development of this blog post.

But she and I did see that there were significant differences in the two versions, aside from the semi-circle around Eddie Kid Brown in the Brown family version.

The most significant variation, of course, is the handwriting in the bottom left-hand corner. While the Hogan/HNOC version has a fairly simple signature by Joe Lindsey, the Brown copy has a whole bunch of text scribbled on it, including some that appears crossed-out and/or overwritten at least once.

The one name you can clearly make out in the scribbling is Mr. Joe Glaser. Joe Glaser by himself is at least one book’s worth of material, because the guy was, to say the least, quite a character. He was a music agent extraordinaire, first partnering in business with Satchmo circa 1935, and eventually representing artists as varied as Billie Holiday, B.B. King, Barbra Streisand and even T. Rex. By many accounts, he also served as a surrogate father for many of the musicians with whom he did business, especially Louis Armstrong, whom he met when Satchmo was at the peak of his fame in the Windy City.

But Glaser, apparently, for all the financial, promotional and emotional support he gave artists, he was also a very complex character, with a long criminal rap sheet and intimate connections to the mob, including none other than Al Capone himself. There also seems to be some question as to whether, and how much, Glaser ingratiated Louis himself with and/or protected him from the mob.

Louis with Joe Glaser

Also up for debate is the impact Glaser had on Satchmo’s music, artistry and image. The manager helped bring Louis to a mainstream, and a global, audience, turning Armstrong into arguably the most well known, beloved musician of the 20th century — and bringing him the type of wealth Satchmo only dreamed of in his New Orleans youth at the Colored Waif’s Home.

But, of course, Glaser also got very rich off Armstrong’s fame, too, and some historians believe the promoter exploited Louis and forced the cornetist into a grueling, exhausting performance and touring schedule. Glaser also reportedly steered Louis toward more popular music, such as Broadway tunes and pop standards that focused more on Armstrong’s singing and less on his cornet wizardry. As that happened, Louis was accused by many peers, especially newer, more cutting-edge jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, as a sell-out, at best, or as an Uncle Tom, at worst.

Then there was Glaser’s ties to the mob. From what I’ve read, in the first few decades of its existence, jazz quickly became intertwined with organized, with the two settling into a sketchy symbiosis, as the Jazz Age and Prohibition occurred concurrently in the 1920s and contributed to each other’s rise.

But Louis loved Joe Glaser like a father, defended him and remained loyal until late in life, when Glaser passed away in 1969. Satchmo learned that his father figure and manager died without leaving Louis a percentage of Associated Booking, the company Armstrong and Glaser built into a money-making cash cow.

(Glaser also dabbled in boxing promotion, especially earlier in his career. Several articles on the sports pages of African-American newspapers mention Glaser, like the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender. For example, a February 1928 column by Courier sportswriter W. Rollo Wilson discusses a Chicago middleweight named Walcott Langford. But most famously, Glaser served as promoter/manager for heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, i.e. the guy whom Ali flattened twice in two years, as well as signed Sugar Ray Robinson, whom many pundits consider the greatest pound-for-pound boxer. Glaser inked Robinson late in the fistic legend’s career to tour the cabaret circuit as — this is true — a tap dancer/comedian, I guess a la Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the 1950s. Robinson returned to the ring a couple years later, however. And a little more on the promoter — I know this is a lot about a relatively minor character in this post’s narrative, but this Glaser dude was pretty fascinating. In 1966, he was subpoenaed in a grand jury investigation into alleged mafia interference in the fight game.)

But Glaser’s name on this Secret 9 print raises a quandary — if Louis didn’t connect formally with the promoter until 1935, as many historical accounts show, how could Glaser’s name be found on a print of a photo that was taken in 1931, before Glaser and Satchmo forged their relationship? And how did this copy get into the possession of the Brown family? This print appears to have been repurposed several times, so maybe Glaser wasn’t the original recipient and thus, in fact, wasn’t given the copy until later in the ’30s.

But while interesting and curious, the deciphering of the rest of the handwriting on the Brown edition, at least for that time being, wasn’t as significant to the process of researching this post as what Lori and I saw in the very bottom-right corner when we examined it: “V. Paddio, N.O.L.A.”

Villard Paddio (from the archives of the Louisiana Weekly)

Once Lori and I pieced together that it meant Villard Paddio, a highly-regarded, influential photographer in the local black community for several decades and the subject of my previous post, we mentioned what we’d found to Lynn Abbott, long-time staffer at the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane who, like Lori, is really good at his job. He’s also just a pretty cool dude in his own right.

Turns out Lynn had never seen this (the Brown) version before, but as soon as he saw that Villard Paddio took it, he filled us in further about how important Paddio was to New Orleans black history, and how important Paddio was to Louis Armstrong himself, making the fact that Paddio took this photo very natural, sort of an “of course!” thing.

Until Lori and I examined the Brown copy, I didn’t know who snapped the picture — indeed, I had no idea who Villard Paddio was. That discovery led to the research about Paddio himself included in this post. Lori and I were significantly helped in this process by Lynn, not just filling us in on Paddio, but also helping us parse the names, identities and importance of every person included in the two separate signatures on the versions.

Lynn noticed, as did Lori and I, that the Brown copy looks like it could have been repurposed because of the different levels of writing that were signed, crossed out or erased, and overwritten by another gifter.

Lynn suggested that the first/top line in the signature might refer “to” an “Austin,” and the line below that says, “Best wishes,” followed by a third line stating that the copy is “from” someone whose name can’t be discerned.

As to who “Austin” might be, we aren’t sure. But it could be Cora “Lovie” Austin, a multi-talented singer/piano player/songwriter/bandleader in the 1920s Chicago music scene who, in addition to jamming with Satchmo and other jazz stars, provided backing for just about all the legendary “classic blues” singers like Ethel Waters, Ida Cox and Ma Rainey (my personal favorite). But again, I’ll qualify these musings like I did with “Lee” earlier in the post — these are wild guesses.

Louis with Sherman Cook and Joe Lindsey

Lynn then posits that the scrawl to the right of that states, as previously mentioned, “To Mr. Joe Glaser,” with the line below referring to “[unknown] Armstrong’s.” Lynn suggests there was possibly a third line under that that might have referred to the Secret 9 somehow.

Beyond that, Lynn noted that an inspection with PhotoShop could hopefully reveal more details that are currently camouflaged in the Brown copy. However, that might not be possible until the COVID-19 crisis passes and life returns (more or less) to normalcy.

Having said that, despite these key differences in the archive and Brown versions, both of them include the quasi title of the photo written, etched or in some other way emblazoned over the men, including the year and an arrow pointing to Armstrong. In addition, given who signed each copy — people very close to Armstrong himself — both are quite possibly fairly old copies that were made and handed out within a decent amount of time after the photo was taken.

Which means that both editions of the picture were two different copies of the original, and somehow over the years, the two separate copies wound their way through the world at large on different trajectories, one that ended with the Brown family, and another one that ended up in multiple archival collections. (I won’t go into how those two processes happened, because that would be traipsing a little too far afield from the topic at hand, even by my standards.)

Which begged the question: Do any original prints of this famous photo exist? I’d never come across one, and neither had anyone else I’d ever encountered or talked to. So, I thought, barring some unexpected development — say, finding a descendant of Paddio who might have one, or someone poking around in some official archives or collections of some sort — that would never happen.

Enter Lori again.

At one point last year, Lori was helping another researcher who came to Tulane who was looking for photos about Storyville, the fabled red light district in the Big Easy around the turn of the 20th century.

Her search included a dive into the Al Rose Collection at the Louisiana Research Collection; Rose was a legendary historian of early jazz, Storyville and related facets of New Orleans culture. At the time, the Rose collection didn’t have a published inventory, meaning Lori had to comb through the collection folders until she came across the Storyville photos.

While digging through the folders, one of them contained this:

Photos from the Al Rose Collection within the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane.

That’s right. A completely pristine, unblemished print of Villard Paddio’s Secret 9 photo. In just a random file. Completely unexpected. 

I cannot overstate how amazing this development was. Just the timing of the discovery of the print (as I was neck deep in the Secret 9), the complete randomness of it, and the fact that no one, to the world’s current knowledge, had seen such an unblemished print of this famous photo. Lori had no idea it was in Jones Hall, and neither did Lynn. It was just … there in the Rose collection.

The back of the photo includes a handwritten note stating it was of Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9, and identifying Joe Lindsey.

Unfortunately, while an incredible discovery in itself, this spotless photo doesn’t bring us any closer, really, to the very origin and circumstances of the photo. More to the point, it can’t identify any of the players in the picture other than Eddie Brown.

Another question to ponder is why this item was in the Al Rose Collection, without reference or notation in the collection’s finding aid.

How did it fall into Rose’s hands, and how well did Rose know Villard Paddio and/or Louis Armstrong? Could Rose’s descendants, either familial, journalistic or artistic, help lead us closer to the source and circumstances of the iconic photo of the Secret 9 baseball team? More to the point of this series of blog posts, would it help us ID any of the players in the photo?

However, Al Rose put together and published, “New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album,” a massive, comprehensive, seminal collection of jazz photography and images, in 1967, a tome that dozens, if not hundreds, of Villard Paddio works.

Now, since I can’t at the moment get into a library that might have a copy of Rose’s book (which was co-authored by Edmond “Doc” Souchon, a prominent New Orleans guitarist, writer and historical preservationist), I circled back with Lynn to see if he could help once more.

I shouldn’t have wondered — Lynn always comes through! While he didn’t have a copy of the book at his home, so he reached out to a colleague in Sweden (Sweden!) who does have the book and, yep, on page 273 of the 1967 edition, is the Secret 9 photo. Lynn relayed that the caption in the book identifies next to Louis as Sherman Cook, and then Joe Lindsey next to Cook. Crucially, Lynn said, the Rose/Souchon book doesn’t identify any of the players.

(Cook, nicknamed “Professor,” was a dancer and manager who was also a consistent member of Armstrong’s entourage as Satchmo’s valet and bodyguard. In fact, Cook took part in aforementioned comedy routine before the Secret 9’s baseball game in 1931, so it makes sense that he’d also be in the photo. “Professor,” of course, was also the nickname for one Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as pianist and singer Professor Longhair — “Fess” — who, along with Armstrong, was one of the greatest and most influential New Orleans musicians of all time. Actually, Fess and Satchmo are two of the four figures on my New Orleans musical Mount Rushmore, along with Dave Bartholomew and Mahalia Jackson. But that’s just me.)

Lynn’s friend in Sweden surmises that the Secret 9 photo was indeed taken by Paddio. Other photos in the Rose/Souchon were also taken by Paddio (per this here), but I’m not sure exactly how many. Regardless, that pretty much guarantees that Rose and Paddio were at least colleagues and possibly friends.

Another observation, this one from Lynn — the original print/Al Rose collection copy includes a good deal more of the foreground of the shot than does the Brown copy, which seems to have much of that foreground cropped out, for some reason. That seems to further show that the Rose photo could be an original print, perhaps one gifted to Rose from Paddio or Armstrong himself?

Lynn also suggested that, given the difference in foreground between the two versions, the Brown copy could have more writing that was originally inscribed at the very bottom but that got cropped out as part of the aforementioned re-purposing. So whose names or well wishes could have been scrawled way at the bottom, and why would the cropping have been done? Again, more intrigue.

LATE BREAKING ADDITION: Right after I’d gotten this post ready to, umm, post, I received news of yet another copy of the photo, this one from the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York City.

A few weeks ago I emailed Ricky Riccardi, the director of research collections at the Armstrong House to see if that museum by any chance had a unique copy of the photo.

They sure did! Below is the digital copy of a version found in Louis’ personal collection, Ricky said. It’s securely part of the Museum’s collection.

Photo courtesy Louis Armstrong House Museum

If you examine this copy, you’ll see it’s aged into a sepia-toned, dog-eared, somewhat ripped and wrinkled print, more so than the other versions previously discussed here. As a result, it’s got an old-timey warmth to it, like something you might find in a stereotypical antique shop. I really like it.

At the bottom is a personal inscription signed by Joe Lindsey to “Mr. Red Baptiste,” which is in all likelihood a misspelling of Red Batiste, a New Orleans piano player from Satchmo’s era. The inscription states the date is 1949. We’re not exactly sure who this might be; Lynn, for example, said he came across 16 people mentioned in the Hogan Collection vertical files with the last names Baptiste, Batiste or Battiste, but none of them list a first name of Red.

After some creative Googling, I came across an interesting possibility, though. At the Music Rising outreach program at Tulane, there’s a transcript/description of a recorded interview with Treme native Louis Gallaud, a well known Creole pianist.

In the interview, the writer relates Gallaud’s childhood and his education of music, both with formal tutors and people who played in local bands and in clubs. The interviewer lists a “Red Batiste” as an example of “[p]iano players who could only play in one key,” as described by Gallaud. The interview transcript notes, however, that they aren’t sure if that was the right spelling of the name.

There’s more: Ricky said that on the back of the print is a hand-written note reading, “1964 From Elise and Gilbert.” Ricky isn’t sure to whom that is referring, but he noted that the handwriting on the back isn’t Armstrong’s.

Villard Paddio’s signature is in the bottom left corner, and you can see that this print has the same white identification lettering at the top and bottom that several of the copies already discussed have.

One last note from my discussion with Riccardi: he also mentions one of the versions we discussed up above — it turns out to be a variation of the version obtained and passed along by the Browns, they family of player Eddie “Kid” Brown”! Here’s this second one owned by the Armstrong House, the variation of the Brown copy:

Photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

The main differences between this one at the Browns’ copy is the absence of the half-circle halo over Kid Brown; the sharper crispness of the photo, including the guys in the portrait and the handwriting, some of which is also inked in blue; and the clear visibility of previous writing of the writing along the very bottom of the photo.

All of that — the blue ink and improved sharpness of the image — could indicate that this copy here (the second Armstrong House one) was the one used to make the copy that the Browns had, making the Brown copy at least “third generation,” i.e. a copy of a copy.

Which poses the question, were there additional copies of the Armstrong House No. 2 that were later distributed, just like the Brown copy? And finally, where did Armstrong House Numero Dos version come from?

That second question is answered at least partly by Ricky Riccardi, whose email to me stated:

“We also have this version, which Louis originally inscribed to someone with the last name ‘Austin’ … then he crossed it off and inscribed it to his manager, ‘Mr. Joe Glaser,’ but I guess because of the sloppiness, [Louis] decided to just keep it to himself.”

So there you have it! This version quite possibly came directly from Louis himself, because it’s in his handwriting! So it’s about as OG as we can get.

OK, now, before we wrap this journey up, there’s two final variables in all this, both in the form of additional copies of the picture. One is from Lynn, who points out that the version in the Hogan Jazz Archive (the “Joe Lindsey” one) has a notation that it’s a “copy from William Russell print.” That could mean that it ended up with the rest of the William Russell Collection at HNOC. Russell was, like Al Rose, a long-time New Orleans jazz historian, writer and collector. I haven’t been to the HNOC research center very much, largely because it’s in the French Quarter, which can be a pain to get to — parking is impossible or exorbitant, and I’ve admittedly been too lazy to take the streetcar. But I promise my readers and myself that I’ll go as soon as this pandemic chaos is over.

And finally, Lynn notes that another print of the Secret 9 photo turned up in the materials that were salvaged from the home of Danny Barker after the floods of Katrina receded. Lynn said it was too damaged but has yet to be examined closely, which is another task that we’ll have to get to when conditions allow it. Barker was an important musician, singer and author who helped preserve the jazz culture of New Orleans. When I think about it, this city fortunately had many such figures like Rose, Souchon, Russell and Barker who chronicled the music and history of the Big Easy.

Given all that, at this point, we might not be able to go much further in this Secret 9 series, at least until the pandemic safely recedes a little more. In addition, a reader who might have gotten this far might be confused and cross-eyed by now. Don’t worry, I am, too.

However, I, and the various people who’ve helped me on this odyssey, have thoroughly enjoyed the quest, because for us and other researchers, it’s quite simply fun to delve into historical mysteries. An emotional roller coaster for history nerds. Here’s how Lori put it:

“Researching the Secret 9 photo embodies [the essence of historical research] in that it was really exciting to sort of stumble across this new copy that had helpful information we hadn’t seen before. This doesn’t happen every day but it’s incredibly satisfying when it does. It’s also been frustrating to continue to run into dead ends.”

Questions still abound in the saga of the Secret 9 photo, from the circumstances of its original creation in 1931, to how each copy or print ended up where it did, to whom those copies might be referring, and, above all, the identities of the men in the picture.

At this point I need to note that while this series is done for now, my compatriots and I will still be collecting information — especially to more fully round out this post about the various copies of the photo — because there’s a lot of good stuff out there.

Those answers, as well as many others pertaining to the Secret 9,  are yet to be discovered, but I still believe they can be. Even with this series of posts, many answers have already been uncovered, through a group effort, and that feels pretty darn good.

On that note, the series comes to a close, and I want to extend a heartfelt “thank you” to everyone who helped me with this project, including Lori Schexnayder and Lynn Abbott at Tulane Special Collections; Sean Cummings and Stephanie Wellman at the International House Hotel; Eddie Brown Jr. and Marcus Brown, descendants of player and boxer Eddie “Kid” Brown; Ricky Riccardi at the Louis Armstrong House Museum; Chris Harter and Phillip Cunningham at the Amistad Research Center; the folks at the Historic New Orleans Collection; and journalist Manuel Torres, who worked with me as an editor on the Secret 9 article I did for the Times-Picayune.

Southern University’s 1959 national championship

Lou Brock as a Southern University Jaguar

Editor’s note: Here’s another guest submission, this one from Jay Sokol at Black College Nines, which is, as you might have surmised, is a fantastic Web site about HBCU baseball. I cannot recommend it enough. HBCU baseball has often been overlooked by historians, including, in my personal opinion, researchers, readers and fans of the Negro Leagues. Which is too bad, because it’s a fascinating history, and because many Negro Leaguers played or coached for HBCUs.

This essay is about the great Southern University baseball team from 1959, when the Jaguars burned up the NCAA tournament. Because the 2020 NCAA World Series would normally be taking place this weekend, this post will provide a little insight on HBCU ball in the tourney’s stead. Enjoy!

By Jay Sokol

Founder, BlackCollegeNines.com

Typically, late-May through mid–June is the time avid fans enjoy most about college baseball.  Post-season conference playoffs and regional tournaments that lead to a world series, bring out the best in a sport we love. Be it in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Divisions I, II and III or in the NAIA, there’s nothing quite like it for a college baseball fanatic. Even more institutions get a chance to compete for a world series title with the smaller United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) and the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) crowning national baseball champions, too.

That’s all different in 2020. In baseball terms … the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 has struck out the College World Series season. 

But we still have memories of past College World Series to keep our minds occupied until a new college baseball season begins. One that quickly jumps out for fans is the thrilling two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth inning, come-from-behind, walk-off home run by Warren Morris of Louisiana State University to defeat the University of Miami (Fla.) by the score of 9-8 to win the 1996 NCAA Division I College World Series.

About 15 minutes away from LSU in Baton Rouge, La., is another baseball-playing institution that won a CWS title, but did it 37 years before LSU claimed its memorable championship of 1996.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics first began sponsoring a College World Series in 1957, nearly five years after the organization’s groundbreaking decision to admit Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) into its membership. Initially, the tournament was an invitational competition leading to a crown.

In 1958, Maryland State College (now known as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore) was the first HBCU to be invited. However, because of distance and final examinations, the team was unable to make the trip to Alpine, Texas, the initial home of the series. This gave Southern University the distinction of being the first HBCU program to play in an NAIA World Series when it represented the association’s District 6/Area 7 in the eight-team tournament of 1959.

Going into the double elimination world series event, the SU Jaguars’ record stood at 19-3 with losses to conference rivals Texas Southern and Grambling and a non-conference matchup with Mississippi Vocational College (now known as Mississippi Valley State University).

The field of eight also included the 18-0 University of Omaha (now known as the University of Nebraska at Omaha) and 17-1 Paterson State College (now known as William Paterson University). Two additional institutions took part — Rollins College, which came into the tournament as the consensus favorite to win it all, and host school Sul Ross State University, each of which had previous world series experience.

The Southern University Jaguars, 1959 national champions

During the regular season, tournament teams had beaten the likes of Ohio State University, Wake Forest, the University of Florida and Michigan State.

Southern’s roster featured a number of first- and second-year players led by Louis C. Brock, the Jaguars’ sophomore right fielder. As the tournament opened, Brock was hitting a resounding .524 with eight doubles, six triples and five home runs. Left fielder Robert “Speedy” Williams had a batting average of .394, was second on the team with 21 runs batted in, and was tied with Brock for the team lead in doubles with eight. Fellow sophomore Harry Levy, the team’s second baseman, led the Jaguars and the Southwestern Athletic Conference with 27 stolen bases while hitting .365, and first baseman Herman Rhodes had a batting average of .361.

Southern’s formidable pitching staff was led by sophomore southpaw McVea Griffin, who had a 7-0 record with an earned run average of 1.35, five shutouts and 58 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched.

Leading the Southern nine were future NAIA Hall of Fame coach Bob Lee and his assistant, Emory Hines, who would succeed Lee as head coach in 1961.

The 1959 NAIA World Series opened with lopsided wins by the University of Omaha and Rollins College before Southern faced its first opponent, host school Sul Ross State College. In the game, Southern took a two-run lead before falling behind in the fifth inning by the score of 3-2.  In the sixth inning, the Jaguars tied the game at three followed by a go-ahead sacrifice fly by ace pitcher McVea Griffin, who then no-hit Sul Ross the rest of the way for the opening-round 4-3 victory.

SU next faced Western Washington College (now Western Washington University), which featured Roger Repoz, who at tournament’s end was named the series MVP and later became a Major League ballplayer. As in their first game, the Jaguars had an early lead, before the Vikings of Western Washington plated four runs in the third inning to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 lead.  

With single runs in the bottom of the third and fifth innings, the Jaguars would tie the score and then take the lead. Western Washington responded by likewise scoring a tying run in the sixth inning and a go-ahead run in the eighth.

Falling behind 6-5 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, the underdog Southern Jags faced their first loss of the tournament. But Brock started off a rally as he reached first base on an error and advanced to second on a walk issued to Herman Rhodes. Third baseman Henry Triplett doubled to score Brock, and with one out, centerfielder Wiley McMillan squeezed Rhodes home for the 7-6, come-from-behind victory.

In the 12th game of the CWS tournament, Southern had an easier time, eliminating Rollins College from competition by the score of 8-3. Meanwhile, rebounding from an opening-round loss to Rollins College, the University of Omaha stormed back to win three straight and force a must-win match with the already 3-0 Southern Jags.

The college world series trophy presentation. Left to right: Unnamed tourney official, Southern head coach Bob Lee, assistant coach Emory Hines, team captain Harry Levy.

Because of weather delays and an upcoming, previously-arranged field commitment, for the University of Omaha to win the national title, the Mavericks would have had to play and win a total of five games in a grueling 32-hour span.

After eliminating Southern Illinois University, Western Washington and Rollins College, in the first championship-round matchup with SU on June 5, Omaha was on the road to do just that, winning by the score of 17-9. The victory set up a winner-take-all rematch with Southern 30 minutes later.

Though the University of Omaha had already played two more games in the world series than the Jaguar ball club, the Mavericks went late into the evening battling Southern for the first six innings of the NAIA World Series championship game. In the top of the seventh inning, with the score knotted at two, Lou Brock, who had not been much of a factor in the tournament to that point, connected for a three-run home run as Southern collected a total of four runs to take a 6-2 lead.

From that point on, the deflated and overworked Omaha Mavericks were held in check as Southern scored four more runs to win the game 10-2. When the last out was recorded in the bottom of the ninth inning to give Southern University the 1959 NAIA National Baseball Championship, it was already after midnight and now June 6.

At the awards ceremony, Lou Brock was named to the NAIA All-Tournament team. Six Jaguars hit over .300 for the series, led by Robert Williams‘ .455, Henry Triplett’s .389, Alvin Woods and Harry Levy each with an average of .333, catcher Roy McGriff at .316 and Lou Brock’s .304.

The significance of Southern University’s NAIA baseball crown has grown immeasurably since then. Sadly, no HBCU institution has won a national baseball title at any level since. So, in my mind, during this time when we have no college baseball tournaments to follow, one of the most thrilling memories to keep me going until next season is re-living Southern University’s historic title run in 1959.

Jay Sokol is the founder of the website blackcollegenines.com, which is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Historically Black College and University baseball by covering current HBCU baseball seasons as well as its history. A lifelong fan of college baseball dating to the 1960s, Sokol has been researching and compiling the history of black college baseball for future publication. He can be reached at jay@blackcollegenines.com.

Post-script: Many thanks to Jay for the stupendous article! As always, submissions are welcome, and check out BlackCollegeNines.com!

Luke Easter: A legend of Halberstamian proportions

Luke Easter, most likely from 1952, in a picture taken for his 1953 Bowman card.

Editor’s note: Here’s an excellent guest submission from good friend Alex Painter, who recently published a book about the Negro Leagues in Richmond, Ind., which he and I discussed here. Alex has also written a book about the great Luke Easter, who is the subject of Alex’s guest article here. Enjoy the tale of “Big Luke”! (Alex also recently contributed this article about Bill Holland to this blog.)

I never met Luke Easter. Stated more aptly, I never had the chance to meet Luke Easter. He was tragically killed almost a decade before I was born. Even so, I think about him often. Like, every day. I think about Luke Easter every single day.

Sometimes, it even leads to striking up a correspondence with Rochester, N.Y., native and fellow Easter fanatic Randy Macpherson. We talk fairly frequently, and share many commonalities, but our affinity for Easter is without question our strongest tie. Now, Randy actually watched Easter play when he was growing up in Rochester, so I get the distinct pleasure of hearing his firsthand stories.

I know we aren’t the only Easter fanatics around (I’ve had the opportunity to meet quite a number of them), but I still like to fancy our little duo as something of a partnership – one tasked with keeping the memory and legacy of our hero alive. 

Sitting idly during a break at work conference, I fired off a question for contemplation to my compadre — how many home runs would a healthy Luke Easter have been able to hit if no color barrier existed in Major League Baseball? I believe we settled on “almost 500.”

Alex Painter, right, with his friend, Randy Macpherson, another Luke Easter fan, at Luke Easter Day in Cleveland. Randy is holding a Rochester Red Wings Luke Easter jersey.

Yet another time, Randy shared with me an anecdote from the early 1960s, when Easter was (literally) on the last of his legs, still suiting up for the minor-league Rochester Red Wings in his late 40s. The Columbus Jets were in town, and young Randy was in the stands.

In the late innings, a relief pitcher came in for the Jets. After the reliever worked a quick strikeout and induced a weak grounder, the swaggering Luke Easter came up to bat, settling in the left-hand batter’s box. The pitcher, as Randy remembers, looked smugly at Easter, seemingly viewing his presence as nothing more than a sideshow. Maybe even thinking why he had to take the time and energy to pitch to this man, the equivalent of a geriatric on a professional baseball diamond.

Easter, taking a mighty cut at the first pitch, came up empty. Undeterred, Easter takes a mighty cut at the next pitch as well. The ball catapults off the aging slugger’s bat, landing safely in the right field stands for a home run. “’Big Luke’ could still rake,” Randy fondly remembered nearly six decades after the fact. 

For Luke Easter, who was the 11th baseball player to break Major League Baseball’s long-observed and vile color barrier, the round-tripper was unequivocally his calling card. He hit them everywhere, by the hundreds, and they were the longest anyone had ever seen. His 477-foot shot at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium was the longest home run in the field’s history. He was the only player to clear the center field scoreboard at Buffalo’s Offermann Stadium. Folks, this constituted a 500-foot blast … and he did it twice, two months apart! I should probably note he was 42 years old when the trick was turned.

So how many home runs did Easter hit? Hell, he didn’t even know – “I hit ’em, and forget ’em,” he’d famously reply when asked. He did, however, have a good sense of how far his furthest one had traveled. After being told by one of his adoring child fans that he had seen his longest home run, Easter bent down at the waist, and with a twinkle in his eye, gently informed the youth, “Bub, if you saw it land, you didn’t see my longest home run.”

However, if you were to ask me the very same question — how many homers Easter hit in his career — I’d have a fairly specific answer for you: 635, but with an addendum. Luke Easter hit at least 635 home runs; all of those are recorded and counted, but in all likelihood he clubbed more. Between stints in the Negro Leagues, Hawaiian Fall League, Pacific Coast League, Venezuelan Winter League, Puerto Rican Winter League, Mexican Winter League, American Association, International League and, of course, with the Cleveland Indians, counting all contests played, Luke Easter hit at least 635 home runs.

None of these recorded home runs were hit until he had reached the 31st year of his life.

I had the distinct pleasure of writing a biography on Easter, published in 2018, titled Folk Hero Forever: The Eclectic, Enthralling Baseball Life of Luke Easter. I believe Easter’s numbers speak for themselves – once you have a full grasp of them, that is. I also believe if the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was as equitable as I am sure they’d like to think, Easter should absolutely have a plaque adorning the walls.

However, I couldn’t shortchange the capturing of the man’s aura and magical presence on and off the baseball diamond. How much everyone adored “Big Luke.” How kind and giving he was. Just how improbable his entire baseball career seemed, literally, from Day One. 

His life and career seem almost Shakespearian when looking at its entirety, or, at the very least, thrillingly episodic. While recently reading a book from one of my favorite baseball writers, I couldn’t help but constantly think about my hero.

********

The summer of 1949 as it pertains to baseball has been forever immortalized by the late David Halberstam, possibly one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His book, Summer of ’49, written 40 years after the fact, is an expertly-told treatise on the memorable 1949 pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the rise of a classic rivalry, as well as a character study on the titanic figures involved in one of the most bitter battles for the American League crown in baseball history.

Halberstam’s voice on the events is dripping with authenticity, perhaps even at times a boyish romanticism. Of course, you’d expect nothing less from a generational writer, but this one wasn’t even fair – he was a 15-year-old coming of age in New York City that very summer, watching the events unfold himself as an adolescent. The result is a classic tale that rests in the ever-growing pantheon of baseball books. 

Now, if Halberstam had grown up on the other side of the country — let’s say San Diego — but all the other factors were the same and he was again penning an account of his experience with the 1949 season, he obviously wouldn’t be writing about the aging “Yankee Clipper,” Joe DiMaggio, battling off salvo after salvo from a Red Sox team led by “The Splendid Splinter” Ted Williams, who was firmly in the prime of his career.

No, Halberstam would be detailing how, all of the sudden, it was nearly impossible to find a seat at Lane Field, the home diamond of the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1949. Hell, he would have most certainly relayed how it got to the point where folks were lining their cars up around the stadium fence, even standing on their hoods for a better view, craning their necks, just to watch the Padres take pregame batting practice. 

Halberstam, being a youngster at the time, may have written about the throngs of young boys, among them future baseball Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson, crowding around holes and cracks in the stadium fence, taking turns squinting their eyes through them, just to catch a glimpse of the action.

Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1949

Well, in actuality, the sudden demand and hubbub surrounded just one Padre — new, gigantic, former Negro Leagues first baseman Luke Easter. Standing a hulking 6-foot-4 and tipping the scales at 240 sinewy pounds of raw power, Easter certainly had a presence on the baseball diamond, to say the least. He was unwaveringly confident, yet always kind. Even through his extraordinary affability, his irresistible smile, make no mistake — Easter was not showing opposing pitchers any mercy in his first season of “organized baseball.”

Easter was the absolute toast of the city. “Brother Easter has to be seen to be appreciated,” Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times wrote shortly after Easter got into town. “His shoulders are so broad that when he wears one of those racy pinstripe suits you think, at first, that he forgot to remove the coat hanger.”

Finch continued:

“Easter is a St. Louis boy, and he’s just as much of a showboat as the old sidewheelers that used to steam up and down the Mississippi … He sports a diamond ring that looks like a headlight on the Santa Fe Chief, [and] is also the owner of one of the longest loudest Buicks ever built.”

Luke laid it on pretty thick; he even asked teammate Artie Wilson, a shortstop and a fellow former Negro Leaguer, to drive the Buick up and down the streets while Easter sat in the back, to make it look like he had a personal driver. Easter would wave to folks, stopping off at the sandlots to give children some batting tips and to sign autographs. Always having a soft spot for children, it seemed like he signed a neighborhood’s worth of autographs every time he stepped out of the Buick. 

Unfortunately, given the focus of Halberstam’s work, Easter garners nary a mention in Summer of ’49. However, it was Easter who took 1949 by brute force, the same manner in which the ball was blistering off his bat, safely landing on the other side of the seven-foot fences at Lane Field. This included one that was slugged over the scoreboard in center field, some 500 feet from home plate. It has been written, perhaps apocryphally, that on that particular blast the pitcher actually ducked, thinking it was a shot back up the box, destined to be a screaming line drive single. Imagine his incredulity when he shot up off the grass only to see a triumphant Easter circling the bases — and probably flashing the pitcher a cunning smile, as if he’d just performed a magic trick on the hapless hurler.

Easter had an extraordinary path to even arrive at the 1949 minor-league baseball season. 

He was born in 1915 on the Mississippi Delta, an area of the country that became much more famous for producing blues musicians than baseball players, but when Luke was 9, his family moved to St. Louis as part of the Great Migration in an attempt to find better-paying jobs and to outrun the South’s widespread Jim Crow laws.

Easter came of age during the Great Depression, and worked odd jobs shining shoes and pressing suits at a dry cleaner. He fell in love with the baseball culture of St. Louis during the 1920s and ’30s. Though he and his brother didn’t have any money for proper baseball equipment, it is said that young Luke developed his batting eye by taking cuts at bottle caps pitched by his brother with a broomstick handle. 

In the mid-1930s, Easter began working for the Titanium Pigment Company and quickly began starring on the company’s baseball team, the Titanium Giants. His power at the plate was absolutely unmistakable. It was said that his teammates would sit on the bench long after the game was over, arguing about which one of Easter’s home runs traveled the farthest. 

Inexplicably, Easter never really got a chance to play in the Negro Leagues during this time. 

In 1941, World War II broke out, and Easter was drafted into the army the following year. Easter, who was still recovering from injuries suffered in a 1941 car accident, was honorably discharged and entered back into civilian life. He spent the remainder of the war working in a war-chemical plant, a naval shipyard and also as an evening security guard. 

Sacramento Bee, May 25, 1949

Purportedly, between 1942 and 1945, when Easter was 27-through-30 years old — ages typically not considered the prime of a baseball career — he did not play a single game of organized ball. Not a single game. 

Serendipity intervened when Easter was noticed while playing in a St. Louis softball tournament in early 1946. He was then invited to try out for the Cincinnati Crescents, the equivalent of a Triple-A Negro Leagues team, owned by Abe Saperstein (who also famously owned the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team). He made the team outright during its spring training in New Orleans

Finally, in 1946, at nearly 31 years of age, Luke Easter was playing professional baseball for the first time in his life. Though he had taken most of the wartime years off from baseball, his power at the plate awoke from any perceived slumber. The Sporting News reported that Easter hit .415 at the plate with 152 RBIs. It has also been widely reported in multiple contemporary accounts that he hit 74 home runs during the season. When Saperstein took his Crescents to Hawaii for the island’s fall league, Luke led the circuit in round trippers.

Easter’s late-blooming, upstart professional baseball career received another break, albeit as the result of a tragedy. On Jan. 20, 1947, famed Homestead Grays slugger Josh Gibson died of a stroke at the age of 35. The Grays, needing a new power hitter, one who could prove to have some box office pull, turned to Luke Easter. With future Hall-of-Fame first baseman Buck Leonard already installed at the first sack, Easter learned left field. Grays ownership even handed him the No. 20 jersey, Gibson’s old number, as a not-so-subtle reminder of his expectations as Gibson’s heir apparent. 

And he delivered. According to Collier’s Magazine, counting all contests, Easter hit 43 home runs in 1947 and another 58 in 1948. He did it all with a swagger that wouldn’t quit. 

Once, according to Baltimore Elite Giants catcher Frazier “Slow” Robinson, after Easter had hit a home run against the Giants, he slowed up right before he got the plate, looked at Robinson, and said, “Hey Slow, I’m the greatest, ain’t I?” He then touched home plate and went back to the dugout.

After Easter led the Homestead Grays to a Negro League World Series title in 1948 and proceeded to lead the Venezuelan Winter League in home runs that offseason, it was then the big leagues were bound to catch up with “Big Luke” Easter, now 33 years old.  

After Major League Baseball’s long-observed color barrier fell in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians were, by far, two of the most aggressive teams in signing Negro Leagues talent. The latter came calling for Easter. The Indians owner, progressive maverick Bill Veeck, even flew down to Puerto Rico to offer him a contract in person. When Indians representatives asked him his age, he quickly gave a birth year of “1921.” This was, of course, six years younger than he actually was, but the Indians bought it. The suddenly on-paper 27-year-old signed a $10,000 per year offer sheet with the Indians. 

Given Easter’s actual age, and that he didn’t play any baseball wartime, and that he had spent nearly his entire life working in factories, plants and shipyards while merely moonlighting as a baseball player, now having a major league contract in-hand is rather astounding.  

Easter would begin the 1949 season with the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres. 

During spring training, Indians star prospect (and eventual breaker of the American League color barrier) Larry Doby collided with Easter in one of the last exhibition games before the season began. It was assumed by everyone in the stadium that Doby, three inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than Easter, bore the brunt of the collision, and thus received all the medical staff’s attention.

Easter waved off any attention, but he found that he could barely move his right leg. The pain was incredible, and one he kept secret. He later discovered that the collision had broken his kneecap. But, seeing no recourse, and knowing an injury could get him released, and his shot at the big leagues up in smoke, Easter played on.

Luke Easter, far right, with his 1950 Cleveland Indians infield mates, from left, Al Rosen, Bobby Avila and Joe Gordon.

Given the severity of the injury, I’ll never understand how he then did what he did. By the end of May, 57 games into the season, Easter was hitting .400 with 18 home runs and 67 RBIs. Twenty-thousand people were routinely packing into Pacific Coast League stadiums to watch Easter play. With the intensity the ball was flying off his bat, he put every fielder on notice. “I wish they’d get him out of here before he kills every infielder in the Coast League,” Hollywood Stars manager Fred Haney lamented. 

Luke’s flashiness, race and propensity to absolutely destroy the baseball (surely leaving the pitcher sheepish, pissed or a combination of both), made him the constant recipient of brushback pitches, even leading PCL president Clarence Rowland to issue a league-wide memorandum to managers to implore their pitchers to stop throwing at Easter. 

The memo was written in response to Easter taking a fastball off his problematic kneecap in early June, which sidelined him for several games. Due to the excruciating pain, he elected to have what looked to be season-ending knee surgery. A one-inch bone chip would ultimately be removed from his knee. Yes, the man whose physical condition had him honorably discharged from the armed services, who had spent most of his life in a rugged, blue-collar factory background, had absolutely owned Pacific Coast League pitching, with a broken kneecap.

Less than four months into the season, “Easter Mania” in the PCL had concluded. His batting average stood at .363, and with the 45 walks he was issued, his on-base percentage ballooned to an otherworldly .460. In just 80 games, Easter had clubbed 27 home runs and driven in 92 runs. 

PCL owners later claimed the loss of Easter to the league had cost them over $200,000 in gate receipts.

As it would be, the “season-ending” status of Easter’s surgery would not keep him off the diamond. The defending World Series champion Cleveland Indians, sinking in the standings and in desperate need of an offensive boost, practically peeled Easter out of his post-operation wheelchair and thrust him into action. The Indians were hopeful Easter’s bat in the middle of the lineup would give them a bit of juice down the stretch in a close pennant race.

On Aug. 11, 1949, one week after Easter’s 34th birthday (err, 28th birthday!), he made his debut with the Cleveland Indians. Still sporting a noticeable limp, and weighing nearly 20 pounds over his regular playing weight, Easter could not deliver on the impossibly high expectations set for him, particularly just five weeks post-operation. He hit just .222 in 1949 (10-for-45) for the Indians down the stretch.

I’ll still maintain .222 was pretty damn good all things considered. The Cleveland fans, disheartened by the team failing on its preseason expectations, found a convenient target in Easter. He was booed incessantly every time he came up to the plate, by the home fans. 

Easter, however, showed the same resiliency he had his entire life, only this time on the biggest stage, by averaging 29 home runs and 102 RBIs over the next three seasons for the Indians. His 1952 campaign, a story for perhaps another time, was nothing short of a miracle. 

After his baseball career ended, Easter took a job in the Cleveland TRW plant, beginning his time there polishing the airplane parts on the night shift. Eventually, he was named union steward by his peers in the factory. It was common practice at the plant to give your hard-earned paycheck to “Big Luke” on payday, who would faithfully and loyally cash it and return it to you. 

On March 29, 1979, during this act of kindness for his fellow workers, Luke Easter was murdered during an attempted holdup outside of the Cleveland Bank and Trust. One of the perpetrators was a former, disgruntled TRW employee who knew of the arrangement. Easter was 63 years old.

********

I never met Luke Easter. Stated more aptly, I never had the chance to meet Luke Easter, but I absolutely love him.  Whenever that nod to Cooperstown finally comes for my hero, I hope someone calls me. I’ll be sure to give my buddy Randy a call, too.

Editor’s post-script: Many thanks to Alex for this top-notch contribution. For more info about Luke Easter’s connection to my hometown of Rochester, here’s a post I did a couple years or so ago.

Alex Painter is a passionate, lifelong baseball fan. His particular areas of baseball interest and research include the Cleveland Indians, Negro Leagues, baseball’s integration history, Civil War era baseball, Indiana-based baseball and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. A proud Hoosier, Alex was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., and educated at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., where he studied History with an emphasis in 19th-century American history and politics. He currently lives in Richmond with his wife, Alicia, and three children, Greyson, Eleanor and Harper. 

Revised book reveals more about life, legacy of Effa Manley

Abe and Effa Manley (photo courtesy of NoirTech Research)

Editor’s note: The following is an email interview with author and researcher extraordinaire Jim Overmyer about the recent release of a revised version of his landmark 1998 book, “Queen of the Negro Leagues: Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles.” The new version includes rich new details about Manley’s intriguing, trailblazing, influential life and legacy.

As the only woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and one who proudly, boldly and doggedly promoted and strengthened both the Newark Eagles, as well as black baseball in general, Manley’s historical impact is virtually incalculable. Take a read of Jim’s thoughts below! …

Ryan Whirty: What are some of the additions, edits and updates in the new version of the book?

Jim Overmyer: There are two major updates. 

Chapter One now includes a substantial amount of new information on Effa’s early life, and also some additional information on her husband Abe. Since she began giving interviews to black baseball historians in the 1970s, she maintained that her mother had revealed to her when she was a young girl that she was a white person, that her mother was Caucasian and her birth father was a white businessman. Even though Effa had been deeply involved in the African-American communities in which she had lived, folks accepted her statements, because, well, there was really no way 40-some years ago to prove or disprove them.

Now, we have the Internet and the millions of genealogical records available through it. Some other researchers and I, including two of Effa’s grand nieces, Cynthia Moore and Michele Welch of Fort Myers, Fla., have been on the trail of Effa’s early life, and we can say that MAYBE she was Caucasian, although quite possibly not entirely.

Jim Overmyer’s book cover

Certainty is not easily achievable in this matter. We have established that her maternal grandmother, Agnes Staley, was white, making Effa’s mother, Bertha, at least partly so. The exact identity of Bertha’s father, Robert Ford, of Washington, D.C., is still a mystery. Filling in his blank on the family tree will answer several important questions, if we can ever do it.

Bertha was married at the time of Effa’s birth to John R. Brooks but told her daughter that her real father was a Philadelphian named John M. Bishop, with whom Bertha had an affair. My research has found a businessman of nearly the same name who could have been Bertha’s lover. But, as in the case of Robert Ford, this will be hard to pin down. However, John Brooks turns out to have led a life of white-collar crime, at which he wasn’t particularly skilled. He went to jail or prison three different times, and there is a strong possibility that he was in jail at the time in 1896 that Effa would have been conceived. We are frustratingly close to pinning that down. 

You might wonder why we are spending so much time on the details of her birth. The answer is that she brought it up first in her interviews and seems to have completely believed what her mother told her. So, we have to try to confirm it, or what kind of historians would we be?

The second major change is at the end of Chapter Ten, the last one, which now concludes with her election in 2006 to the Baseball Hall of Fame. She was one of 17 black baseball figures who were inducted that year based on the work of a special Hall committee.

There are other lesser changes throughout, updating the Hall of Fame status of others mentioned in the book, for example, and adding player statistics from the Seamheads.com Negro League Database, which I see as the most comprehensive and reliable source of black ball stats at this time. 

I was frankly surprised (and pleased) that the rest of the book held up so well since its publication in the 1990s, considering all the Negro League research that has taken place since then.

RW: Much has been written about Effa before this, but with baseball history, there’s always something new to discover. What spurred you to update her story?

JO: I had been going back to her origins whenever a new Internet genealogical information source was available, looking for our missing pieces to the puzzle of her early life. Her grandnieces were doing the same, and Amy Essington, a writer and researcher in Southern California, where Effa spent her last years, was coming up with interesting things from local records. Effa’s election to the Hall was public knowledge, of course, but I had been a member of the election committee, so I was well versed in that.

I had finished a manuscript on a contemporary Negro League owner, Cumberland Posey, and was waiting for it to through the usual publication process when, out of the blue, I got a call from Christen Karniski, the sports acquisitions editor at Rowman & Littlefield, publisher of the 1998 edition of Queen of the Negro Leagues. She wanted to know if I would like to do an updated edition in time for the 2020 centennial of the founding of the first Negro League. Naturally, I did, even in the face of a very short deadline to have the book revised.

Jim Overmyer

R&L was very supportive, and we overcame some hurdles (the original digitized photo files from more than 20 years ago had become lost, for one thing) to bring the finished product in on time. Meanwhile, the Posey book was moving along, and I am in the unusual, but enjoyable, situation of having two books out at the same time.

RW: What do you think made Effa Manley such a captivating figure? Why has her story resonated so much with so many people?

JO: She did not allow the prevailing attitudes of her time regarding gender and race to define her life. Her public persona included being well dressed and getting mentioned in the newspaper society pages, and she liked that.

But even before getting involved in Negro League baseball with her husband Abe in 1935, she was prominent in Harlem as an equal-rights activist. In 1934, she was one of the organizers of the Citizen’s League for Fair Play, a committee campaigning for increased hiring of African-American clerks in Harlem’s white-owned department stores, that instituted picketing and a boycott to make its point. Typically for Effa, she was at a meeting with one store’s executives, where the negotiating wasn’t getting the League anywhere. So, she dived right in:

“We think as much of our colored girls as you do your young white girls, but there’s no work for them except to work as someone’s maid or become prostitutes.”

The department store executives hit the roof, but her response was, “I’m only telling the truth.” After several weeks of picketing, when Effa could sometimes be found walking the line with a sign, the stores gave in and hired black salesclerks.

She was no different as a co-owner of the Newark Eagles. She had distinct ideas of how the black leagues could be run better, and made no bones about her disagreement with the bad business practices that plagued the Negro Leagues, such as the “raiding” of teams’ rosters by other teams and the lack of consistency in keeping to league schedules when potentially lucrative barnstorming opportunities were available.

At one Negro National League winter meeting, when she and Abe protested the hiring of a white booking agent to run the very profitable league games at Yankee Stadium, she called the owners on the other side of the issue “handkerchief heads.” That’s a term you never hear these days, but it was meant to describe household slaves on Southern plantations, who characteristically wore head coverings. Just envision the original Aunt Jemima of syrup fame. Casting Effa’s statement in more modern terms, she was calling these successful black businessmen “Uncle Toms,” and they were madder than hell.

Although the points of comparison are limited, you can draw some connecting lines to a famous contemporary of Effa’s, Eleanor Roosevelt. There had never been a First Lady like her before. She used her access to what her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, had called the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to advocate for many progressive causes (included equal rights). There had been some female owners of sports teams before Effa Manley, but none with her successful track record and outspokenness. 

RW: How was Effa able to stand toe-to-toe with such powerful forces as Cum Posey, Branch Rickey and J.L. Wilkinson, especially at a time when sexism was such a prevailing attitude?

JO: Effa had an enormous amount of self-confidence, and it really didn’t matter who she was talking to, if she thought she was in the right. After Rickey began signing Negro League players for the Dodger system without compensating their former teams (including the Eagles, who lost Don Newcombe that way), she confronted him over the issue in the aisle at a Negro Leagues doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. 

She was certain that she cramped the style of the other Negro League owners at their periodic executive meetings, since business was usually done among the men to the accompaniment of lots of swearing and cigar smoking. She unsettled them more by feeling free to express her opinions on how things were being run. But the other owners had to acknowledge her business acumen, even if they didn’t agree with her opinions. The Eagles were a well run team, and over the years Effa was given assignments that fit her abilities, such as organizing Army-Navy Relief Games during World War II and checking up on the distribution of East-West All-Star Game receipts when the NNL owners were suspicious of having been shorted. 

Her husband Abe Manley, the co-owner of the team, was a genial, well-liked fellow, and spent many terms as NNL treasurer, although he had a major aversion to administrative detail. He would travel with the team and scout talent, but balancing the books and writing letters was definitely not what he wanted to spend time doing. So, Effa did all that work, and while she may not have gotten public credit, everyone else in black baseball knew who really had the power of the checkbook.    

Although Effa and Abe had different personalities and approaches to getting things done, he always backed her up, and vice versa. While some teams had multiple ownership, each had only one vote in league meetings. She and Abe always hashed out their differences, if they had any, ahead of the meetings, and presented a solid front. The two of them got into black baseball in 1935 when Abe, an avid baseball fan, remarked to Effa that the Negro Leagues were a fine idea, but they really weren’t run very well. So, their views on baseball management were pretty well aligned from the beginning.

RW: How can modern baseball fans draw inspiration from Effa Manley? What are some of the enduring lessons that her life and achievements can teach us?

JO: The first version of “Queen,” in my opinion, ended on something of an unavoidable downbeat. The Negro Leagues executives had been almost entirely left behind by integration, and their leagues, and eventually their teams, went out of business. One was left with no way to project Effa’s talents into the future other than to imagine how she would rock white male owners back on their heels, as she had done to her Negro League colleagues, if she had been given the chance to be an executive in integrated ball.

But now, the revised edition ends with her election and induction into the Hall of Fame as its only female member. Her niece, Connie Brooks, accepted Effa’s plaque on Induction Day in 2006, and said, “I’m extremely proud of her because, No. 1, she’s a woman and this is a man’s thing here.”

In the end, Effa Manley had bestowed upon her, albeit posthumously, baseball’s highest honor. It took some waiting (25 years after her death and almost 60 after she got out of professional baseball), but it was worth it.

About the Author

Jim Overmyer specializes in the Negro leagues, although he looks forward to seeing his lifelong heroes, the Chicago Cubs, back on the field. His current books are a new edition of Queen of the Negro Leagues, a biography of Effa Manley, the only woman member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays, one of only two people elected to two American professional sports halls of fame. He is also the author of Black Ball and the Boardwalk, a history of the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants of the Negro leagues.

He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, and belongs to its Negro Leagues, Nineteenth Century, Deadball and Business of Baseball committees. He was a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2006 special committee that voted to induct seventeen persons from the Negro leagues and the black baseball period before the leagues were formed as members of the Hall. He lives in Tucson, Ariz.

All of Jim Overmyer’s books mentioned in this can be purchased through Bookshop.org, an online seller which gives a substantial portion of its profits to benefit independent bookstores.

An influential photographer, a mysterious vanishing

“One of Bedou’s best students was Villard Paddio. Paddio, who resides in the Treme area and operated an uptown studio, distinguished himself by being Louis Armstrong’s preferred photographer in New Orleans and by promoting himself as a commercial photographer.

“Paddio has the opportunity of seeing his photographs reproduced in Black history books, yearbooks, programs, directories and other publications recognizing Black achievement and promoting the consciousness of patronizing Black-owned businesses.”

— 1988 article in the New Orleans Tribune

Villard Paddio, from the May 31, 1947, Louisiana Weekly, shortly after his disappearance.

Editor’s note: Here’s my new post about Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9 baseball team, and about the famous 1931 photo of Satchmo with the squad’s players and other members of his entourage that, over the decades, has become iconic in both Louis Armstrong lore and New Orleans baseball history. My previous posts on this topic are here, here, here and here. …

On the morning of May 24, 1947, Villard Paddio, one of black New Orleans’ most popular and influential photographers, leaped over a railing and into the swirling tides of history.

For a reason known only to him, the man who snapped the iconic portrait of the Secret 9, Louis Armstrong’s early-1930s semi-pro baseball team, brought his story, and his life, to a close.

In doing so, Villard — who established a successful photography business in Treme in the late 1920s despite the economic perils of the Great Depression, and despite the bigoted racial norms of segregation that smothered the city — snapped thousands of images of New Orleans’ Creole and black middle- and upper-class residents, families and musical stars.

Paddio was so good, and so admired, that Armstrong himself frequently employed him as a personal photographer, especially when Satchmo came home to the Big Easy. That resume included the famous portrait of the Secret 9, the one with the players, managers and Louis’ close friends and confidants, that was taken during Armstrong’s mid-1931 visit to his hometown.

Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9, 1931 (photo by Villard Paddio, print from the Al Rose Collection at the Louisiana Research Collection)

The players are resplendent in their bright, white new uniforms — according to press accounts from the time, Satchmo spared no expense for his team, including outfitting them in spiffy new threads — and Louis himself stands at the far right, his famous smile beaming with pride, leaning on a baseball bat, duded out with a white hat, dark jacket and striped white pants.

While Armstrong was flitting around New Orleans on his triumphant homecoming in August 1931, he attended a game between his Secret 9 and the Melpomene White Sox, an event that included a little goofing around by Satchmo and a couple members of his entourage, Sherman “the Professor” Cook and Little Joe Lindsey, as well as a Secret 9 loss.

The team didn’t last very long, at most a couple of years, and only a handful of its games were reported in the media. By the end of 1932, the Secret 9 appears to have dissipated for good. Over the last couple decades, the team has gained a level of mythos within Satchmo lore and has been cited as both an example of Louis’ love for the national pastime, as well as the trumpeter’s quirky, one-of-a-kind personality and personal story.

I’ve written about the Secret 9 a few times, and for a year or two I’ve worked with various folks on investigating the origins of the photo, as well as the identities of each player in it, something that has always been a mystery.

New Orleans city directory, 1942

My fellow history divers and I did ID one of the players (more on that a little ways down), and various contemporaneous articles in the Louisiana Weekly had mentioned the names of a couple players on the team at the time, especially pitcher Kildee Bowers. However, I/we have yet to put any more names to specific faces of players in the famed photo.

But what about the man who snapped the picture? What about Villard Paddio? That subject, my friends, is well worth excavating because his role in the life of the greatest jazz artists of all time — including the Secret 9 — is enormous.

Here’s how Ricky Riccardi, the director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House and Museum, described the relationship between Satchmo and Paddio, and the significance of it, in an email. Note especially Paddio’s accompanying Louis during the latter’s 1931 homecoming tour that included the Secret 9 photo:

“Without Villard Paddio, our understanding of Louis Armstrong’s early years in New Orleans would be incomplete. Goodness knows Louis spent enough time talking about that period but without Paddio, we would be left alone to imagine what the [Colored] Waif’s Home band looked like, or we’d be at a loss trying to picture his mother Mayann.

“And when Armstrong triumphantly returns home for three months in the summer of 1931, it’s Paddio once again who is there to document his return to the Waif’s Home, his historic appearance broadcasting at the Suburban Gardens and his legendary ragtag baseball team, the Secret 9. Every image Paddio took of Armstrong has become iconic, and all fans of the trumpeter should be thankful that Paddio was there over a nearly 20-year stretch to document some of the most important moments in Armstrong’s time spent at home.”

To further point out the relationship between Armstrong and Paddio, especially the latter’s role in the former’s 1931 return to New Orleans, I turned up an article from the July 11, 1931, issue of the Chicago Defender reporting on Satchmo’s homecoming that summer.

In a “New Orleans News” column, reporter Emily C. Davis stated that Mike McKendricks, “assistant manager of the Louis Armstrong band,” attended a reception at the home of one Miss Doris Dozier. Other attendees of the gathering included McKendricks’ wife, Armstrong and other band members, and Davis then added:

“Several other social courtesies are being extended the popular musician and his wife, including a luncheon by V. Paddio, the photographer …”

Thus, with Paddio’s crucial role in Armstrong’s life established, we can focus a lens on the photographer’s life. And, as mentioned in the intro to this post, the saga of Villard Paddio begins at the end, as it were. Telling the tale of such an influential photographer and artist must start at his puzzling, somewhat forgotten death.

The front-page story about the tragedy in the Louisiana Weekly is pretty harrowing in its own right, telling a tale of an ailing man who was at his wit’s end. The story stated:

“New Orleans lost one of the South’s leading photographers to the muddy waters of the Mississippi River on Monday morning, May 24. Ill for some time from a heart ailment which led to a nervous breakdown, Villard Paddio, 53, 2009 Kerlerec Street, apparently despondent, ended his life by leaping from the Canal Street ferry, Westside, into the Mississippi.

“Paddio, a native of Lafayette, La., was known as one of New Orleans’ most progressive citizens, modest in his habits and manner.

“According to information obtained through police of the Third Precinct, Arthur Neville, 30, … told them that he had called at Paddio’s residence in response to a call for a taxicab at about 8:30 o’clock Monday morning. Paddio, unknown to Neville at the time, requested that he be carried to Algiers for a visit to a sister who was ill. Paddio also told Neville that he, too, was ill.

“After boarding the ferry, Paddio left the cab and walked to the rail. Hardly had Paddio reached the rail, he jumped into the river. Neville yelled that a man was overboard, and the ferry captain ordered that the boat circle the area where Paddio had entered the water, and ordered a life boat lowered. However, Paddio was not seen or found.

Canal Street ferry landing, with the neighborhood of Algiers in the background, across the Mississippi River, circa 1920 (photo from the Louisiana State Museum archives)

“A raincoat and umbrella to Paddio, which he had left in the cab, was returned to Mrs. Hilda Paddio … She told the investigating police that the description of the man who leaped into the river answered that of her husband. Mrs. Paddio also stated that her husband had been ill for six months and had been released from Flint-Goodridge Hospital one week ago.”

The article concluded by stating that “[a]t press time his body had not been recovered from the river.”

The article also attested to Paddio’s key role in the local black community by stating that after returning from military service:

“Paddio opened his own business, and since that time has earned quite a reputation as a photographer. His interests in the future of Negro business led him to support every movement in that direction. A pioneer in the field of organized Negro business, his zeal and since attempts to foster business opportunities won him many friends in all walks of life.”

What was the ultimate fate of the seminal photographer who captured Louis Armstrong’s early years on film and became a pillar of the New Orleans black community?

The answer is that I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. And it’s not for lack of trying.

Simply, Paddio’s body was never found, and I tried to dig into what exactly happened on the morning of May 24, 1947, and in the years after.

No contemporaneous news reports exist that report that his body being being found (which includes the Louisiana Weekly and several of the city’s daily papers), and I did a cursory newspaper database search in the hopes of finding a report of an unidentified body washing up somewhere, either in New Orleans metro area or downriver from the city. No luck.

I went to the New Orleans Public Library, the official repository of the archives of the city government and administration, and went checked out the 1947 annual internal report of the Algiers Public Service Co., which at the time operated the ferry across the Mississippi off which Paddio jumped (between the southern corner of the French Quarter and the westbank community of Algiers). I was hoping to find meeting minutes or something, but was dismayed when the records were just actuarial tables and accountant’s reports.

An ad in the March 1, 1930, issue of the Louisiana Weekly. The ad was part of a full-page, shopper-type promotion for local black business for Mardi Gras weekend.

I also asked for the New Orleans Police Department homicide reports, which, from what I could glean from archives finding aids, would be most likely to contain missing persons records. However, the library staff, after going down to the basement to find the cops reports, told me that the homicide reports for 1947 … just weren’t there. Gone.

Soooooo, I moseyed on over to Tulane University, home of the Louisiana Research Collection, where I combed through the records of the American Waterways Operators, a consortium of shipping companies and related river-centric businesses, governmental bodies, oversight agencies and Coast Guard officials formed to monitor and regulate the Mississippi River waterway.

But that was also a dead end — I found no mention in the 1947-48 AWO meeting minutes of any casualties, crimes or suicides on, from and/or around the Algiers ferry.

(I mulled whether to file an official FOI request with the Coast Guard and/or National Archives for any pertinent records, but I ultimately decided that it would be too much of a headache and might delay the publishing of this post for months, with very slim chances of a positive result.)

I also checked out an internal examination of “police developments in New Orleans” for 1946-47, to no avail.

The only thing that added even a little to the story was the NOPD’s annual report for 1947, and even then the pertinent information was limited.

It looks like the department seemed to realize that some type of water emergency squad was necessary — a squad trained in and equipped to prepare for boat-assisted water rescues and water-safety training was formed the same month as Paddio disappeared. In fact, during summer 1947, the squad saved more than 35 people from drowning in Lake Pontchartrain. However, the report makes no direct mention of the squad performing any operations on the river.

The NOPD also featured a Juvenile and Missing Persons Division as part of the Detective Bureau; however, most of the detail about the division’s activities in the report concern juveniles, youth and child mistreatment and abuse. About cases involving the missing, the report states:

“This Division keeps the records of missing persons for the Department and acts as a clearing house for records of this type for the Department as a whole. Attempts are made to locate missing persons and arrangements provided for their return home.”

So I guess Villard Paddio would maybe fall under this category? It’s unclear.

The most interesting info in the report, at least as far as this blog post goes, is the suicide statistics, under which I’m assuming Paddio’s case might also fall. Overall, the NOPD recorded 46 total suicides for 1947, more than a third of which were by people over 50. Thirty were white males, 13 were white females, three were “colored” males, and one was a colored female.

(I’m assuming there were more suicides by people of color that weren’t reported or ignored. However, traditionally there are less suicides among the black community than among whites; in 2019 in Louisiana, for example, the suicide rates for African Americans were well less than half that of whites.)

NOPD annual report, 1947, pg. 9 (from the Louisiana Research Collection)

Within the “colored male” category in the NOPD suicide reports in 1947, there were only three total, and only one listed as a colored male 50 years old or over. So that, quite likely, was Paddio. Under cause of suicide, a total of 12 were listed as ill health, including just one for colored males — again, that could very well be Paddio.

Finally, in the stats for type of suicide, there’s no specific line for leaps from boats, just categories for drowning and “jumping from high places.” Significantly, however, there were no suicides for 1947 listed as colored males who drowned, and there were likewise none under jumping from high places. Four of the listed drownings were white males, and one was a white female. (Just as a side note, there were no listed suicides for black females at all.)

So these numbers really don’t say much about what specifically could have happened to Villard Paddio after he jumped from that ferry, which, given the futility of my other, previously-mentioned research, leaves us more or less back at Square 1.

Villard Paddio’s rise as one of the most prominent black photographers of his day, as well as the legacy his immense body of work speak to the type of determination, perseverance and hope that was often needed for African-Americans, including light-skinned Creoles like Paddio, to survive amidst the segregation found in New Orleans in the 20th century. 

Unfortunately, the original source material and products that composed Paddio’s work are possibly lost to time, but his photography can still be seen in the archives of the Louisiana Weekly and other newspapers, as well as various historical collections and archives in New Orleans and beyond.

Villard Paddio’s WWII draft registration card

On that note, and at the risk of wandering off too far afield, I think it’s important to place Villard Paddio’s importance to the cultural and social stew of “colored” New Orleans — including why Louis Armstrong had such an affinity for Paddio and his work. 

To zoom out a little bit and sketch the scene in the first half of the 20th century in New Orleans, arguably the best, most incisive and comprehensive volume about black photography in New Orleans is the book, “Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer’s View of the Early Twentieth Century,” by Arthe A. Anthony.

In the book, Anthony examines and celebrates the life of her grandmother, Florestine Marguerite Perrault, who forged a successful business and a celebrated identity as black New Orleans’ most prominent and respected photographer.

As a biography of a trailblazing woman of color, “Picturing Black New Orleans” is stellar, and I highly recommend it — it’s rich with fascinating personal insights and anecdotes from Anthony about her grandmother and Florestine’s life and career. It traces how courageous, tenacious and dedicated Florestine was, both as a person of color and a woman, at a time when being both was a major double whammy for anyone.

For the purposes of this blog, I’ll look at Anthony’s discussion of the bigger picture about the situation in which Creole photographers in general found themselves from the turn of the century into the 1950s and beyond, and then detail Anthony’s discussion of Paddio, who was a disciple of Florestine Perrault. 

In her book, Anthony, while unspooling her grandmother’s life, outlines the social, political and economic atmosphere in which her grandmother operated, especially as a light-skinned Creole who not only had to navigate the indignities and oppression of Jim Crows, but also had to walk the fine lines of social demarcation that existed among Creole and black society in New Orleans. Creoles held a place in New Orleans that was at once unique, nuanced and perilous when it came to forging their way in the city.

I write all of the above because of this — Florestine Perrault, along with one of her equally preeminent photography colleagues, Arthur P. Bedou, tutored Villard Paddio in the art and business of photography. It was largely because of them that Paddio — the man who worked as Satchmo’s personal photographer, including snapping the iconic photo of the Secret 9 — excelled as a lensman and as an entrepreneur.

The Emmanuel Perez Orchestra, a photo taken by Arthur P. Bedou, one of Paddio’s mentors and colleagues (photo from the New Orleans Jazz Museum’s collection)

In addition, much of the above description of the social, economic, political and racial facing Florestine at that time applies equally to Paddio. However, as Anthony notes, Paddio had a few advantages that she didn’t have — namely being a male who also had the ability to travel outside of New Orleans to shoot events beyond the metro area.

Anthony writes that Paddio used a military pension to finance his formal education that led him to opening his own studio. Here’s how Anthony describes Villard’s de facto apprenticeship with Perrault and Bedou, and Paddio’s emergence as the third part of black New Orleans’ triumvirate of legendary photographers:

“Paddio became the third member of this trio in the mid-1920s. Bedou was Paddio’s first teacher, but they parted ways due to a disagreement of undetermined origin. Their breakup brought Paddio to Bertrand’s Studio for instruction from Florestine, much to her husband’s consternation. Paddio became an accomplished portraitist as illustrated by his photograph of Dr. L.T. Burbridge, the president of Louisiana Industrial Life Insurance Company, which appeared on the cover of Negro American Magazine in July 1931. And his charming photograph of nautically dressed four-year-old Willie Joseph Misshore was the cover illustration for the August 1932 issue of the local Our Youth magazine. In addition to portraits of Creole family and community life, Paddio often made group photographs of musicians. One of his most famous subjects was Louis Armstrong, who called Paddio his favorite photographer when he was at home in the Crescent City.”

Arguably Paddio’s crowning achievement — and his most influential work, aside from his Armstrong images — was “Crescent City Pictorial,” a 28-page, souvenir booklet published in 1926 by O.C.W. Taylor, co-founder and first editor of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper (which has continually published since 1925, including during and after Katrina, and for which I’ve been blessed to freelance report for several years).

The booklet chronicles  “to the Progress of the Colored Citizens of New Orleans, Louisiana, “America’s Most Interesting City,” with just about all of its photos being taken and contributed by Paddio; subjects include some of the most successful black-owned businesses at that time, social organizations, educational institutions, churches and iconic architecture. The Tulane library Web site says the Pictorial “serves as one of the best visual documents of African American life in early 20th century New Orleans.”

Its contents are available at the Amistad Research Center on the Tulane campus, including digitally here. (Amistad has been a continuous source of information and resources for me over the years, including microfilm of the Weekly and the Old Timer’s Baseball Club’s collection, which was donated by the late Walter Wright, one of the most famous baseball players, managers and educators in black New Orleans.)

A 2014 Slate article by Rebecca Onion describes the “Pictorial” thusly:

“The pages of the booklet aim to show off the diversity and breadth of life in the black community. Photographer Villard Paddio, who owned a studio in the Treme area of the city, took pictures of the interiors of businesses, social clubs, community centers, “old folks’ homes,” and hospitals. The booklet contains four pages of the exteriors of homes of its citizens, and two pages of churches.”

In particular, Onion points to the images of the stunning Pythian Temple, which served as a social and entertainment hub, and a center of black socio-political activism. Onion writes:

“A collage of images of the Pythian Temple features a group shot in the roof garden, which functioned as a dance hall … The page also shows the range of professionals and businesses that leased offices in the temple’s space: doctors, attorneys, and the Liberty Industrial Life Insurance Company.”

In addition to his work chronicling Louis Armstrong, the New Orleans jazz scene, the Crescent City Pictorial and his in-studio portraiture, Paddio’s photos frequently appeared in the pages of the national African-American press. Here’s a few examples (print quality is low because they’re printouts from online database archives that have been converted from PDFs to JPGs):

Pittsburgh Courier, Apr. 5, 1930

Pittsburgh Courier, Oct. 19, 1935

 

Pittsburgh Courier, March 11, 1933

Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1936

Paddio also occasionally advertised in the national edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, frequently touting his skills at touching up and restoring photos. A promo in the paper’s Sept. 16, 1933, issue blares, “PHOTOGRAPHS COPIED, RENEWED ENLARGED,” with a snappy couple of lines below:

“Have you some family snapshots, tintypes or old photographs? Are they faded, torn, soiled or scratched? What would you not give to have that cherished picture splendidly restored or enlarged!”

Then, centered under states, “Prints in Black and White or Sepia — Oil Paintings,” then his Dryades Street address on the bottom line.

Or sometimes Paddio himself was in the news for the Courier, such as the paper’s Aug. 8, 1942, which includes a photo of Paddio handing a check to Ernest J. Wright, fundraising campaign director for the New Orleans Negro Board of Trade.

The caption states that the owner of Paddio Studio on Dryades Street, “brought in 35 business houses as new members at the regular meeting at the regular meeting of the board last Thursday.”

Ernest J. Wright was a prominent social worker and Civil Rights activist who made a gutsy run for lieutenant governor in 1963, becoming the first person of color to do so since Reconstruction. However, I don’t think he’s in any way related to the Ernest Wright who owned the NNL’s Cleveland Buckeyes in the 1940s.

I want to note that in the Paddio-Wright snapshot, Paddio looms over Wright, so I think he was a pretty sizable guy. In terms of physical appearance, Paddio for some reason reminds me of Beau Jocque, the late zydeco great. Anyhoo …

Also of significance is the location of Paddio’s photo studio and residence. One of Paddio’s early addresses with his own family was at 2227 Onzaga St., which was in the historic Seventh Ward.

An early and traditional Creole neighborhood that played a significant roles in both New Orleans’ civil-rights history as well as the development and growth of jazz, the Seventh Ward was adjacent to the more famous Treme area and was part of the former Claiborne Avenue district, an economically-thriving, culture-rich, middle-class black commercial and residential section of the city, unfortunately, was bisected and decimated by the construction of I-10 in the mid-20th century.

Modern-day 2009 Kerlerec St.

The family later moved a half-mile south to 2009 Kerlerec St., also in the Seventh Ward but a little closer to Treme.

Which segues to the location of Paddio’s Studio, which was first located at 1428 Dumaine St., smack dab in the middle of Treme. Today, the address is in the north corner section of none other than the famed Louis Armstrong Park, between the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts and the Treme Community Center.

What I believe is 1428 Dumaine St. today

However, at the time, in the 1920s and ’30s, the studio still stood amidst the culturally-rich Treme neighborhood.

At some point, Paddio moved his business to 2113 Dryades St., in the Central City neighborhood, another economically and culturally vital section of New Orleans, and a relatively multicultural one. (Or as multicultural as Jim Crow New Orleans could get.)

For a century, the Dryades Street corridor anchored the bustling commercial district that featured a wide array of white- and black-owned businesses, including the Page Hotel, which, as the primary business of promoter/team owner Allen Page, served for decades as the business center of the New Orleans Negro Leagues.

The neighborhood was also home to the storied Dew Drop Inn music club, as well as seminal New Orleans musicians like Buddy Bolden and Professor Longhair.

Central City/Dryades also served as the cradle of the city’s civil-rights movement, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the New Zion Baptist Church and a series of prominent protests were rooted.

However, much like the Claiborne district, Dryades was uprooted and crippled by 20th-century development, a process that depressed the neighborhood economically, leading to high crime rates and socio-cultural void.

2113 Dryades St. today

However, in the 1980s a revival of sorts began, when part of Dryades was renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, after Oretha Castle Haley, a leading local civil-rights activist who served as president of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality.

That was followed by significant reinvestment in the neighborhood, include the funding and construction of the Ashe Cultural Arts Center and the New Orleans Jazz Market, which took their place, along with the Dryades YMCA, as pillars of the rebirth. That rebirth hasn’t been swift, and it still continues as of now.

Alrighty, that wraps it up for now for Villard Paddio. It’s quite a tale, and a mysterious one that, quite sadly, might never be fully solved.

The final installment in the Secret 9 series will focus on the famous photograph itself, the various discovered copies of it, and the process of unraveling the iconic picture’s history.

However, I’m not sure when this last planned post will go live, because it will probably require in-person visits to one or more libraries or archives, which, for the time being, won’t be possible. Hopefully, the wait won’t be too long!

Below is a bunch of biographical info about Paddio, including the basics of his own life, as well as a glimpse at his genealogy and family. If you want to check out now, I totally understand.

As many people know, I’m obsessive about such research and am frequently seduced into diving into the rabbit hole. Thus, at the risk of making this high-falutin’ screed any longer, I want to highlight a few details/insights quirks of Paddio’s biography and family tree, just for a little contextual color.

His date of birth

The first is Paddio’s date of birth, which, in the various documents I found, is all across the map. He was born in the Lafayette Parish town of Scott, or so he said on his WWI draft card. However, the issue of the exact date of his birth, or even the year of his birth, skews wildly — his WWI draft card states he came into the world on May 17, 1883. However, his draft card for the Second World War reports his birth date as Feb. 19, 1892 — nearly nine years later!

To see if either of those dates is even close to the actual one, the Louisiana Weekly article reporting his disappearance in 1947, he was 53 when he leapt over the rails of a ferry. That means he would have been born around 1894; likewise, if he had been born on the listed dates on his draft cards, he would have been either 65 or 55!

(The 1947 article states that Paddio was indeed born in Lafayette, although it doesn’t specify if that’s Lafayette Parish in general or specifically in the city of Lafayette, which is also the parish seat.)

The 1900 federal Census lists Villard’s birth year as 1893, and the 1910 Census lists him as 18, which means he would have been born in 1892, while the data in the 1930 Census places Paddio’s birth year as 1896.

His early family tree and places of residences

Another facet of Paddio’s life that’s worth tracking is his family’s location, where it called home.

It looks like Paddio’s family originated, at least postbellum, in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, including his grandfather, Charles Paddio, who owned a farm and toiled as a planter in the village of Vermillionville. I haven’t found any records for anyone who could be among previous, i.e. pre-Civil War, generations of Paddios of any race or status.

Charles appears to have been born in 1813 or thereabouts, and he was married to the former Mary Louise Senegal, nee about 1830. Charles, a planter, owned his own property, where he and his family worked.

The 1870 federal Census lists Charles and his family as “mulatto,” and several of his neighboring residents were listed as such as well. That would establish a running theme through the Paddios’ documented history — exactly what race in which they’d be pigeonholed, as it varies from “mulatto”/biracial to black/”negro,” to even white on a small handful of documents. Such official ambiguity is no surprise, given his light skin and status as a Creole in a city and state containing complex racial stratification and designation.

Lafayette Parish and Lafayette city proper have a history that ranges from unseemly to downright frightening, at least when it comes to racial issues — and that no doubt significantly impacted the development and history of the Paddio family.

From the prevalence of slavery to postwar violence and suppression of civil rights to the integration process, it’s not a pretty picture. I won’t go into details — in the continued interest of blog post length — but there’s some good articles on the subject here, here and here.

While a good chunk of Paddios stayed in Lafayette Parish right up through today (particularly the town of Carencro), while others eventually migrated to Texas, including in Beaumont and Galveston along the state’s Gulf Coast. Some headed for St. Landry Parish and its parish seat, Opelousas, and others filtered to New Orleans itself.

A move to Mermentau

All of that aside, back to Villard Paddio and his immediate family. They shifted from Lafayette County, located in south-central Louisiana, to the parish to the immediate west, Acadia — the town of Mermentau, specifically, which is listed as their home in the 1900 and 1910 Censuses (Censi?)

Villard appears to have been the youngest offspring of the Telephose and Laura (nee Bauque) Paddio; according to the 1910 Census, Laura had seven children total, five of whom were still living — Charles (who had started his own family with whom he lived next door), Georgia, Raoul, Villard and a fifth I haven’t been able to pin down.

Telephose is listed as 60, while Laura is 48; by 1910 they’d been married 35 years, meaning Laura was just 13 at the time of the nuptials! Villard’s reported age is 18.

Telephose (strangely listed here as Teliswa) was a farm laborer — owned his farm himself — a role his sons also took on. Interestingly but not surprisingly — this was Creole and Cajun country, after all — the family’s primary language was French, and only Villard and Georgia could read and write. (Georgia worked as a cook in a private family.)

Mermentau, La., has always been an extremely small community, it looks like, having reached its peak historical population of 771 in 1980 (as of 2010 it held 661 folks.)

Originally part of vast, heavily-wooded marshlands and bayous inhabited by the Atakapa people, the community became known as a refuge of smugglers, pirates and other rapscallions engaged in all sorts of skullduggery and illicit shenanigans.

The tiny cluster of residents expanded ever so slightly through the 19th century, as traders, missionaries, French government agents and logging interests set up temporary or permanent shop, a process augmented by the arrival of railroad service. Nestled along the Mermentau River, the community became a legally-designated village in Acadia Parish in 1899.

Today, Mermentau is 86 percent white, roughly 12.5 percent black, with small percentages of other racial demographics. About a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

Villard’s military service

Villard’s youth in Mermentau segues into the next facet of Villard Paddio’s biography — his WWI service, which, as Arthe Anthony wrote in her previously-discussed book, allowed Paddio to settle, post-war, in New Orleans and launch his photography career.

I’m not sure specifically where Paddio was stationed during the war, but his draft card reports his occupation as a cook, as of June 1917, and his residence as Mermentau.

Paddio’s WWI draft card

Villard’s name was drawn on July 21, 1917, and he was scheduled to report for service Oct. 27. According to a transport vessel that departed from Hoboken, N.J., presumably for active duty, on Dec. 4, his unit is listed as a quartermaster company.

His immediate family

Finally, I want to touch on makeup of Villard Paddio’s immediate family. His parents were likely Telephose Paddio, born around 1850, and the former Laura Bauque, nee about 1840. Documents show that Laura could have lived until 1950 — possibly making her 110!

By my count, Villard had at least four brothers and sisters — the aforementioned Charles, Laress, Georgia and Raoul. He might have had another brother, Joseph.

1910 federal Census

Coming back to the theme of racial ambiguity, in the 1910 Census, Telephose, Laura, Villard and his siblings are listed as white, reflecting the fact that they had very light skin and could “pass.” His brother’s family, which lived next to Villard’s family, were also recorded as white. They were living in Mermentau still.

Railroad depot in Mermentau in 1967

(Further, the 1930 federal Census lists Laura, Telephose and two grandchildren as living in Mermentau. The rest of the residents listed on the sheet are reported as white, with a “w” written in the pertinent column about race. However, the Paddio family, spelled as “Patio,”  is reported as “NEG,” and it appears as if the pen was pressed on the paper really hard, with some writing underneath it. That hints at the possibility that the census-taker that he or she “goofed,” for a lack of a better term.)

Anyway, from 1910s Mermentau, Villard headed to war and settled in NOLA. Exactly when and by what process he did so, I’m not sure. He’s listed in the city directories at least as early as 1925.

As far as starting his own family, Villard Paddio married his wife, Hilda, the former Hilda Poree, and had a son, Villard Jr., in 1928. Hilda was born in 1895, the daughter of Hypolite and Adele Poree; Hypolite was a bricklayer who had lived in New Orleans for some time. Hilda worked as a seamstress.

After Paddio’s disappearance in 1947, Hilda and their son moved to Los Angeles. Hilda passed away there in 1978 at the age of 82, while Villard Jr. died in 1987 at 58. Villard Jr., like his dad, spent time in the Army; he enlisted in November 1950 and served nearly two years during the Korean War.

I’m pretty sure that Villard Sr. and Hilda had some grandchildren, but I stopped short of trying to locate any specifically.

Guest commentary: Jackie, Henry and Me

Editor’s note: I have another guest submission here, from Will Clark, a devotee of the Negro Leagues, their history and their legacy. Here, Will gives an emotional retelling of one of the most important, moving moments in his life …

By Will Clark

With this past April 15 being the 73rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson‘s MLB debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the image of his Hall of Fame plaque burned large in my consciousness. It all served to bring to my mind a flood of memories, with one in particular standing out.

That was the memory of my first “pilgrimage” to the “Baseball Shrine of Shrines”: The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the first encounter with the live viewing of the plaques of Jackie and Henry Aaron (my two baseball heroes).

One early Saturday morning, got behind the wheel of my black 1977 Mercury Cougar XR-7 two-door coupe (named “Queenie,” incidentally), filled up her 26-gallon tank, stuck a cassette in the player, turned the CB radio channel to 19, and headed on the highway.

Armed with AAA “TripTik” routing maps (yeah, this was before GPS, you should know), I cruised along until, a bit more than four hours later, I wheeled onto Main Street in Cooperstown.

Entering the Hall for the first time was, I remember, a humbling experience. I remember, as I walked along and studied the various plaques and exhibits, it felt akin to being in a classic cathedral, a place of reverence. If anyone talked, I wasn’t aware of it.

The one thing that was foremost on my mind was to find the plaques of Henry Aaron and Jackie Robinson, the two ballplayers central in my young life to that point.

It wasn’t very long before I came upon Aaron’s Hall of Fame plaque. Staring at it, felt transfixed, locked into that one spot. A thousand memories rushed through, from every Topps baseball card I owned of his, the books, magazines, newspaper articles.

Then came the memory of the night of April 8, 1974, in a South Bronx fourth-floor walk-up tenement apartment, sitting on a hardback chair on one side, and my father in a similar chair on the other side, both of us watching a black-and-white screen on an old TV set perched atop a dresser drawer.

We witnessed Aaron, taking one quick swing, driving Al Downing’s pitch deep, deep to left field, with Dodger left fielder Bill Buckner climbing the fence in hot pursuit, only to see the ball land on the other side. Through it all, I was remembering a relatively rare occurrence: my father smiling. Felt my eyes beginning to mist and cloud as I stood in front of the plaque.

I continued my reverential stroll through the hallowed Hall, marveling at the exhibits and the legendary names, practically oblivious to anyone else, taking no note at all of the passing time.

Before I knew it, I found myself standing feet from the plaque of Jackie Robinson. Standing in place, eyes locked on the image of a man, a proud, brave man who knocked down barriers, it suddenly felt as if I had stepped into a time tunnel.

I saw and heard my father telling me his stories of the great Jackie Robinson, tales that, with each telling and retelling, brought him to life. I could almost see the large frame in his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, terrorizing pitchers and catchers with his daring base running, eyes of purpose alight on the diamond.

As it all came upon me, a sense of loss and emptiness permeated my being. For a brief moment, I wished my father (who had died of a heart attack on Sept. 28, 1974) could have been here at the Hall.

An emotional wave swept through and enveloped me, and the tears flooded and burned my eyes, flowing freely. Trying to choke them back proved fruitless, so I just let them flow, caring not one iota who, if anyone, saw me. Then, just as quickly, the flow stopped. I looked into the eyes of the raised face on the wall, and, choking back more emotions, blurted out a halting, “Thank you.”

(Photos from baseballhall.org.)

Many thanks to Will for his excellent submission! And the offer is always open to any and all to submit something of your own. Just email me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com. Stay safe, stay well y’all!

Celebrating the legacy of Negro Leaguers in Japan

The release of an English translation of “Gentle Black Giants,” a chronicle of the tours of Negro League all stars in Japan and their impact on the development of baseball in that country, prompted me to reach out to co-author Bill Staples, Jr. for an email interview about the book and the goldmine of history contained in it. Below is the lightly-edited interview …

Gentle Black Giants: A History of Negro Leaguers in Japan (NBRP Press, 2019), by Kazuo Sayama and Bill Staples Jr., foreword by Kenso Zenimura

Summary:

Between 1927 and 1934, the Philadelphia Royal Giants embarked on several goodwill tours across the Pacific to Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines and the Hawaiian Territories. As African Americans, they were relegated to second-class citizenship in the U.S., but abroad they were treated like kings. Unlike the previous tours of major league stars who ridiculed their opponents through embarrassing defeats, the Royal Giants made the games competitive, dignified and enjoyable for opposing players.

In Gentle Black Giants: A History of Negro Leaguers in Japan, Kazuo Sayama and Bill Staples Jr. chronicle the tours of the Royal Giants and demonstrate that without the skill and humanity displayed by the Negro Leaguers, Japanese ballplayers might have become discouraged and lost their love for the game. Instead, the experience of sharing the field with these “gentle, black giants” kept their spirits high and nurtured the seeds for professional baseball to flourish in Japan.

Ryan Whirty: How did the English translation of “Gentle Black Giants” come to be? What was the inspiration behind the project?

Bill Staples Jr.: I received a copy of the original Gentle Black Giants as a gift from Japanese baseball historian Kazuo Sayama in the spring of 2014. I helped him with some research on a Japanese-American baseball team that competed in the 1935 National Baseball Congress, and he sent the book as a token of his appreciation. 

I flipped through the pages full of beautiful kanji characters wishing I could read it. I could not. I emailed Sayama and thanked him for the gift and suggested that maybe I could someday help translate his book for English readers.

He responded, “I quite agree with you in your idea [for an English translation]. It is kind of a raw material. It’s all up to you to decide how to cook it. It is written for Japanese readers, and I think I will have to add some explanation for foreign readers when it has an English version.” 

After receiving the green light from Sayama to proceed, several attempts to pull the book off with volunteer translators failed (I have three translated versions of Chapter 1, and each one is slightly different). The project required dedication and focus, so I turned to a team of paid translation experts for assistance.

This new English version is a different reading experience from the original Japanese book. It’s divided into two sections, Part I: Gentle Black Giants, the English translation of Sayama’s original work, and Part II: A History of Negro Leaguers in Japan, a collection of stats, articles, essays, newspaper clippings, maps and photos from the Royal Giants tours. Sayama had many unanswered questions in his original book, and fortunately 30 years later we now have the answers. The information in Part II provides new insight and interesting perspectives on the tours, some from the players themselves.

I was also inspired to complete this project because of distant family ties to the story. My wife’s great-uncle, Robert Bailey, played second base with the Dallas Black Giants and Fort Worth Black Panthers in the Texas Negro Leagues and was once teammates with several members of the Royal Giants, including Biz Mackey, O’Neal Pullen and William Ross. I want my children to be proud of their family ties to Negro Leagues baseball history. Therefore, I feel an obligation to help preserve the legacy of the Philadelphia Royal Giants, a ball club comprised of African Americans (and many from Texas) who played a key role in laying the foundation for professional baseball in Japan — a legacy to be proud of and worth celebrating.

RW: Why did the Philadelphia Royal Giants embark on their tours of Japan? How was the team gathered together, and how did they prepare for their voyages to Japan?

BS: I’ll be honest, I’ve been researching the tours of the Philadelphia Royal Giants since 2005, and not once have I ever read anything about “why” the team embarked on their tours to Japan. So, based on what I do know, I’d say it was the same reasons that teams like the Kansas City Monarchs or Pittsburgh Crawfords barnstormed by bus across the continental U.S. – for fortune and fame – a desire to earn money, seek adventure and pursue their love for the great game of baseball. 

(BTW, I also have an unproven theory that perhaps manager Lon Goodwin viewed Rube Foster as his nemesis in organized black baseball. The two were former teammates with the Waco Yellow Jackets in Texas, circa 1900, and I get the sense from various articles that Goodwin often engaged in one-upmanship on the West Coast when it came to Foster and his accomplishments in the East. Even the name “Philadelphia Royal Giants” hints at an attempt by Goodwin to one-up Foster’s early club, the “Philadelphia Giants.”

O’Neal Pullen, Ajay Johnson, Biz Mackey and manager Lon Goodwin in Honolulu, Hawaii, 1927. (Courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum).

It’s quite possible that Goodwin’s desire to achieve success as a promoter of black baseball on a global stage was another reason why the tours occurred. You know, basic human frailties – ego, jealousy, spite, etc. I do think it’s interesting that in 1921 there were attempts to take a Negro Leagues all-star team to Japan, but it never materialized (Chicago Defender, Feb 5, 1921).

Did Goodwin view this as a failure on Foster’s part? Not sure. Maybe the tours were Goodwin’s attempt to match or surpass Foster’s accomplishments in the East? This is just a theory on my part for now. Maybe in the future, another baseball historian can explore this possibility, if interested.

With regards to the Royal Giants tours, I refer to them as “Trans-Pacific Barnstorming” – baseball tours across the Pacific Ocean by steamship, instead of on a highway by bus. It’s also worth noting that while Japan is the only country mentioned in the book title, the team also visited Korea, China, the Philippines and the Hawaiian Territories. In fact, several Royal Giants arranged independent tours to Hawaii, giving some players like O’Neal Pullen (featured on the book cover) additional tours stamped on their passports during the summers of 1928, 1929 and 1931.  

The story behind the makeup of the 1927 Royal Giants’ roster is complex. After playing in a two-game series in Fresno, CA, during the Fourth of July weekend, 1926, against Kenichi Zenimura’s Japanese American Fresno Athletic Club, Goodwin’s Los Angeles White Sox were invited to participate in a tournament in Fukuoka, Japan. Zenimura had previously toured Japan in 1924, and in the summer of 1926 already had plans in place for a second tour in the spring of 1927. Historians posit that Zenimura inspired and/or encouraged Goodwin to take his ballclub to Japan the following spring as well.   

In 1927, Goodwin managed two teams – between the months of April and October, he led the Los Angeles White Sox, the only African-American team in the semi-pro leagues of southern California; and from October to April he managed the Philadelphia Royal Giants, a team of Negro League all-stars who competed in the California Winter League

Goodwin’s CWL team in 1926-1927 included top Negro League talent from the East, including: Newt Allen, Andy Cooper, “Rap” Dixon, Frank Duncan, Willie FosterGeorge Harney, “Crush” Holloway, Newt Joseph, “Biz” Mackey, “Dink” Mothel, O’Neal Pullen, “Bullet Joe” Rogan, “Turkey” Stearnes and Willie Wells.

Goodwin’s invitation from Japan was expressly intended for the semi-pro L.A. White Sox, but according to telegrams sent to Japan before the team arrived, his plan was to tour with the entire lineup of his CWL Royal Giants instead. 

Unfortunately for him, only five of the 14 CWL players agreed to participate: Cooper, Dixon, Duncan, Mackey, and Pullen. (Note: These AWOL players received threats of steep fines and lifetime bans from Negro League officials while in Japan). To fill the remaining spots of the Royal Giants roster, Goodwin tapped the top talent of the L.A. White Sox, and signed: Joe Cade, Alexander Evans, Robert Fagen, Junior Green, Ajay Johnson, John Riddle, Eugene Tucker and Jesse Walker

According to box scores from the March 1927 Chicago Defender, Goodwin invited the semi-pro White Sox players to join the Royal Giants roster as substitutes for the remaining games of the CWL season to prepare for the tour. The blended roster of professional and semi-pro Royal Giants embarked on their first tour on March 9, 1927.

One of the appendices in Part II of Gentle Black Giants summarizes all six of the Royal Giants Trans-Pacific barnstorming tours. In short, between 1927 and 1934, a total of 47 different individuals (44 players, 1 manager, 2 promoters) spent 641 days on tour, and covered approximately 52,348 miles. Manager Lon Goodwin, pitcher Andy Cooper and catcher O’Neal Pullen were the most active of the barnstorming Royal Giants, participating in more than 70% of the collective days on tour.

RW: What did the Royal Giants find when they arrived and toured in Japan? What was the scene in Japan at the time, politically, socially and economically?

BS: The timeline of Japan’s history is tracked by eras that coincide with the reign of a new emperor. When young Prince Hirohito (age 25) assumed the throne after his father died in 1926, it marked the beginning of the Showa era. So, when the Royal Giants arrived in 1927, to the Japanese, it was the year Showa 2. At that time, Japan was already a great power and would grow even more powerful under Hirohito. Japan had the ninth-largest economy in the world, the third-largest navy, and was a respected and leading member of the League of Nations

Featured (left to right) are Ajay Johnson, Rap Dixon, Frank Duncan, Biz Mackey shaking hands with Tokyo Mayor Nishikubo Hiromichi, John Riddle (middle), Eugene Tucker, Andy Cooper, George Irie, and Jesse Walker (Courtesy of a private collector).

Japan was still recovering from a natural disaster that occurred in late 1923 known as the Great Kanto Earthquake. Similar to the earthquake that devastated San Francisco in 1906, much of the death and destruction in the Japanese quake was caused by fire. The Kanto disaster also fanned the flames of racial tension between ethnic Koreans and Japanese, with hundreds of deaths occurring in race riots in quake-stricken areas.

With regards to baseball, by 1927 the game had eclipsed sumo as the nation’s most popular sport. That same year Meiji Shrine (Jingu) Stadium opened (Biz Mackey hit the first home run there on April 20), and that same year Hirohito became the first Japanese Emperor to attend a baseball game.   

Baseball was first introduced to Japan some 50 years before the Royal Giants arrived. During the Meiji period (1868-1912) sometime around 1872-73, American Horace Wilson accepted a teaching job at Ichiban Chugaku (now Tokyo University) and used baseball as a recreational activity for his Japanese students. The game later thrived through amateur industrial teams, high schools and universities during the early Taishō period (1912–1926), and the first semi-professional team was established in 1920, the Daimai ballclub sponsored by the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun newspaper. 

Several major league teams toured Japan prior to 1927, including the Reach All-Americans in 1908, the NY Giants-Chicago White Sox World Tour of 1913, Major League All-Stars in 1920, and Herb Hunter’s All-Stars in 1922. From a diplomacy standpoint, U.S.-Japan baseball relations suffered a huge blow during the ‘22 tour. 

Among the stars on Hunter’s team were Waite Hoyt, George Kelley, Irish Meusel, Luke Sewell and Casey Stengel. Once they arrived in Japan, the big leaguers defeated every college, industrial and amateur team the country had to offer — except one. On Nov. 19, Hunter’s All-Stars lost 9-3 to the amateur Mita Club, led by future Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Michimaro Ono. On the surface, one would think that the Mita Club and fans would be happy with the victory over the Americans, but they weren’t. Reports out of Japan explained why:

“America’s reputation for sportsmanship suffered a severe blow when the American baseballers threw away Sunday’s game to the Mita local nine, which is strong nationally, but obviously no match for the American professionals …. The general opinion was frankly expressed that the Americans dropped the frame for advertising purposes, anticipating increased gate receipts later at Osaka and other parts…. The Tokio Asahi expressed the disappointment, ‘We welcomed the American team because we thought they were gentlemanly and sportsmanlike. They have now shown themselves to be full of the mean professional spirit. Japanese baseball followers are not foolish enough to believe they tried to beat Mita …. They disappointed our hopes and left an unpleasant impression upon us.’” 

Losing pitcher Waite Hoyt would later explain that he and his teammates were just “clowning around” on the field and meant no disrespect to their Japanese hosts. Nonetheless, the damage was done. As a result of several factors — including the 1922 Herb Hunter All-Star thrown-game fiasco, the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Japan, and restrictive post-season play policies established by [Major League Baseball] Commissioner [Kenesaw Mountain] Landis — no major league team would tour Japan for another eight years. This major league void would be filled by the top talent from the Japanese American and Negro Leagues.

RW: Why did the people and baseball fans of Japan accept the Royal Giants as equals and as friends? What was it about Japanese society and culture that made it more welcoming?

BS: There are several reasons why the Royal Giants were embraced by the people of Japan in the 1920s and 30s. First, Japan already had a rich and positive history involving people of African descent. A few examples include: Yasuke, the former African slave who became the respected “Black Samurai” (soon to be a movie starring Chadwick Boseman); Pyrrus Concer, a former American slave who visited Japan before Commodore Perry; and Japanese students who enrolled at historically black colleges during the Meiji Era. For a deeper dive into this rich history, I recommend Yukiko Koshiro’s paper, “Beyond an Alliance of Color: The African American Impact on Modern Japan,” (Duke University Press, Volume 11, Number 1, Spring 2003). 

Baseball card of Japanese baseball historian Kazuo Sayama, Dodgers Fantasy Camp, Vero Beach, FL, 1994. “His goal in life is to write good stories.”

The second factor at play was the involvement of Japanese Americans in the Royal Giants tours. African Americans and Japanese Americans were “brothers in a shared struggle” for equality in the United States. This is reflected in the 1913 quote by W.E.B. DuBois, “The fight of the Japanese for equal rights is similar to the fight the Negroes are making for their rights. Educated people of all races recognize that the color line is artificial.”

The passing of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 only added more fuel to the fire. Unofficially called “the Japanese Exclusion Act,” it ended all immigration from Japan, created tension between the U.S. and Japan, and fostered more racial animosity towards people of Japanese ancestry already living in the U.S. 

So, a kinship developed between Japanese Americans and African Americans, and this was especially true on the West Coast where anti-Asian sentiment was the strongest. In fact, it was not uncommon for Japanese Americans visiting the Jim Crow south, when forced to choose between “colored” or “white” amenities, to self-identify as “colored.”

During the 1927 tour, Japanese American Joji “George” Irie served as promoter for the Royal Giants. He scheduled games and acted as interpreter and cultural liaison between the team and people of Japan. Irie was able to arrange meetings between the Royal Giants and high-ranking officials, including the mayor of Tokyo and Emperor Hirohito himself. Japanese business leader and future politician, Gikaku “Steere” Noda of Hawaii, served in a similar role for the team during their 1932-33 tour.  

The third and final reason the Royal Giants were embraced by the people of Japan was a simple matter of respect. Respect is a two-way street, and the Royal Giants were received with dignity and respect because they treated everyone they met in Japan – opposing players, fans, officials, hotel employees and high-ranking officials – in the same manner. This mutual respect was reflected in a lengthy letter of gratitude written by Lon Goodwin and published in the Asahi Sports. (Highlights from this letter are included in another response to a question below.)

RW: How did the Japanese react to the type of baseball played by the Giants, and what impact did the Giants’ tour of Japan have on the growth of baseball in the country?

BS: Gentle Black Giants was first written by Kazuo Sayama in the mid-1980s, and it reflects his passionate research in the archives of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, and most importantly, his in-depth interviews with several Japanese ball players who competed against the Royal Giants.

Baseball is all about timing, and Sayama was indeed the right man in the right place at the right time to capture this story. He interviewed several Japanese players who remembered vividly and fondly their games against the visiting Negro Leaguers. So, the information and the positions stated in the book reflect the views of the former players who not only called the Royal Giants players “Gentle,” but also referred to them as, “The Other Fathers of Japanese Baseball.”    

The Royal Giants were called “Gentle” because they were viewed as respectful guests off the field, and thoughtful competitors on the field. Sayama captures multiple examples of this sportsmanship shared by the former players, including:

  • Biz Mackey bowing back to a Japanese pitcher after being hit by a pitch
  • The Royal Giants not arguing blown calls by fledgling umpires
  • The Royal Giants keeping the games competitive and not humiliating their opponents by running up the score
  • The Royal Giants offering positive words of encouragement, during games and afterwards in the press, about the Japanese potential as ballplayers. 

RW: You argue in the book that the Royal Giants had more of a positive impact on the development of the sport in Japan than did the similar tours of major league stars. Why do you think that was?

BS: It’s important to remember that arguments presented in this book reflect the positions of Japanese baseball historian Kazuo Sayama, which were greatly influenced by the former Japanese ball players who competed against both the Royal Giants and the Major League All-Stars.

Chapter 17 of Sayama’s translated book provides an eye-opening list comparing and contrasting the tours of the Royal Giants versus the tours of the white major league all-stars in 1931 and 1934.

A Philadelphia Royal Giants jersey is displayed on stage at the “Baseball’s Bridge to the Pacific” symposium at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan, on March 22, 2018. Left to right: Yoshikatsu Masaki, Bill Staples, Jr., Toyokazu Ishihara, Kyoko Yoshida, and Isao Takano. (Bill Staples, Jr.)

His conclusion is that the Royal Giants deserve more recognition and credit because their presence played a key role in the formation of a Japanese professional baseball league in 1936. He thinks that without the influence of the Royal Giants, a Japanese professional baseball league would have eventually started on its own, but not as early as 1936. 

According to Sayama, other countries rejected baseball because the visiting major league professionals left the developing players disillusioned with the game through humiliating losses. He argues that “The Royal Giants were the shock absorbers,” that made it possible for Japanese players to not get discouraged, maintain their love for the game, and continue to thrive and eventually become professionals. 

In the preface of the new English translation, I temper Sayama’s enthusiasm with a more moderate position, one that neutralizes any dualistic thinking that it must be either the Royal Giants or the major league all-stars who deserve all the credit for the start of a professional baseball league in Japan. I said: 

“Professional baseball is a business model that relies on two key components for survival: 1) highly-skilled ballplayers to create a quality product (the supply), and 2) the fans who pay their hard-earned money to watch the game (the demand). The debate about which tours inspired the start of professional baseball in Japan — the Royal Giants or the major league All-Americans — is not a zero-sum game (i.e. for one side to be right, the other side must be wrong). I think there is a degree of truth in both perspectives. The Royal Giants played a key role in helping to create skilled ballplayers, whereas the All-Americans played a key role in generating excitement among the media and fans. Thus, professional baseball grows and/or survives with only the right mix of player talent (supply) and fan interest (demand). It is a yin and yang relationship — one does not exist without the other. So, when it comes to the debate about which teams or tours inspired the start of professional baseball in Japan in 1936, I do not think it is wise or productive to debate which is more valuable, the yin or the yang. Having said that though, it is critically important to preserve the history of both sides of the story, which Sayama demonstrates has failed to occur when it comes to celebrating the Philadelphia Royal Giants …”

RW: Likewise, what impact did their travels in the country have of the Royal Giants themselves? How did they like the country, and how did they like the people of Japan?

BS: I previously mentioned the letter by Lon Goodwin (pgs. 52-53 of Gentle Black Giants). It reflects the Royal Giants’ feelings about their travels in Japan. Below are some highlights from that letter: 

“Dear Japanese players and fans from the baseball field, although we had admired the Yamato race for some years, our respect for you grew immensely after being treated so well by the Japanese people …

“We believe that Japanese baseball will continue to thrive greatly in the future. However, our admiration for Japanese baseball is due not only to the skills that were shown in the Daimai game, but also to the respectable sportsmanship that the Japanese players demonstrated.

“Frankly, we think there is not any other country where we could play and enjoy games while not paying any attention to wins or losses. We especially admire the passionate baseball fans, who are well educated and watched the games with respectful manners. That left us with a great impression of Japanese baseball. The more we thought about the dilapidated American stadiums, the better and nobler the Japanese stadiums appeared. We think that the stadiums are used by all the fans, and are for the Japanese people to enjoy real sports.

“We wish great success and a promising future to Japanese baseball society, and we also express thankfulness for their hospitality and kindness from the bottom of our hearts to our Japanese hosts through Asahi Sports.”

Years later, Royal Giants first baseman Frank Duncan shared his memories about Japan with Negro Leagues historian John Holway: 

“The people were wonderful over there (in Japan). I loved them. I hated to see them go to war. Wonderful people, the most wonderful people I’ve come in contact with. We played all over — Osaka, Kobe, and into Nagasaki. They had some nice teams over there in Japan, but they weren’t strong hitters. Pretty good fielders, fast, good baserunners …”

The interviews with the Japanese players also revealed the Royal Giants feelings about their experience in Japan: 

  • “A member of the Giants, whose name I forget, said to me, ‘I like Japan and the Japanese people. There is no racial barrier here. What a good country! I’d like to come back here again.’”
  • “I heard the (Royal Giants) players say that if a war took place between the U.S. and Japan, they would cheer for Japan. Life is not as simple as baseball. When they say that they would cheer for Japan, they are saying that we are a colored race, too.”

RW: How can this book help American baseball fans understand the history of baseball in Japan, as well as why the sport took hold so strongly in the country?

BS: There’s a long list of people who helped the English translation of Gentle Black Giants come to fruition. Three of those individuals were kind enough to provide testimonials for the back cover, and I think that together their words help answer the question of how this book can help American fans better understand the history of professional baseball in Japan: 

  • “Staples does an excellent job of presenting Kazuo Sayama’s Gentle Black Giants to English readers for the first time. Hopefully this project helps foster a greater appreciation for the global impact of the black athlete and their positive influence on the history of professional baseball.” Raymond Doswell, Ed.D., Vice President/ Curator, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
  • “Gentle Black Giants is a pioneering book that vividly presents African-American ballplayers’ striking impact on Japanese baseball.” Kyoko Yoshida, baseball historian, Ritsumeikan University
  • “Today’s MLB players are standing on the shoulders of the Nisei and Negro Leagues pioneers who transcended prejudice by playing the game in the U.S. and elevating the sport in Asia as pre-war goodwill baseball ambassadors.” Kerry Yo Nakagawa, founder, Nisei Baseball Research Project

As to why the sport took a strong hold in Japan, some historians argue that baseball has great appeal because it was the first sport in the country that emphasized cooperative team play, unlike the individual activities of sumo and kendo. The people of Japan were drawn to the mental and spiritual aspects of the game as well. Discipline, hard work, and team spirit resonate with the Japanese work ethic.

At the end of the day though, Gentle Black Giants is about the positive impact Negro League players had on the start of professional baseball in Japan. With that in mind, I often compare the creation of pro baseball in Japan to the building of a pyramid.

Participants in the “Baseball’s Bridge to the Pacific” symposium at Ritsumeikan University, on March 22, 2018, enjoying a post-event celebratory meal in Kyoto, Japan. Left to right: Toyokazu Ishihara, Bill Staples, Jr., Kyra Staples, Yoshikatsu Masaki, Isao Takano, and Kyoko Yoshida. (Bill Staples, Jr.)

The introduction of baseball to Japan in the 1870s laid the foundation. Between the 1870s and the 1930s, hundreds of tours took place – by semi-pro teams, high school and university teams (from both sides of the Pacific, U.S. and Japan), Japanese American teams, Negro Leagues teams and major league stars.

Each tour laid a stone that helped build this pyramid. And then, in 1934, Babe Ruth and his peers visited Japan, and in doing so, laid the final and most visible stone on the top of this pyramid. Yes, professional baseball in Japan did start after Babe Ruth’s visit, but it’s important to remember and give credit to the others who played an important role in its creation – much like the overlooked and underappreciated Philadelphia Royal Giants.

**   

In conjunction with the celebration of the Negro Leagues Centennial (1920-2020), Gentle Black Giants is now available for $19.20 (reduced from $27.99). 

Gentle Black Giants was translated and published by NBRP Press, and proceeds from the book sales support the non-profit educational activities of the Nisei Baseball Research Project. 

Visit GentleBlackGiants.com to learn more or visit Amazon.com to purchase your copy today. 

About the authors:

Kazuo Sayama is the author of over 40 books. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and the Sports Literature Society. He is the winner of the Ushio Nonfiction Award, Wakayama Prefecture Culture Award, Mizuno Sportswriter Award, Joseph Astman Award and Tweed Webb Award.

Bill Staples, Jr. is a board member for both the NBRP and Japanese American Citizens LeagueAZ Chapter, SABR Asian Baseball Research Committee chair, researcher for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, SABR Research Award winner and past speaker at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Visit his blog at: zenimura.com

Howard Kenso Zenimura, the son of Japanese American baseball pioneer Kenichi Zenimura, graciously signed on to write the foreword to the book before his passing in December 2018. His father served as a catalyst in the Royal Giants’ first tour to Japan in 1927, whereas Kenso is recognized as one of the first Americans to play for the Hiroshima Carp of the Nippon Professional Baseball league.

Additionally, several historians whose areas of expertise include Negro Leagues and/or early Japanese baseball history also contributed to the book. The all-star lineup of contributing historians includes editor Gary Ashwill, and authors Bob Luke, Ralph M. Pearce, Dexter Thomas and Kyoko Yoshida.

About NBRP Press

NBRP Press is the publishing arm of the Nisei Baseball Research Project, a non-profit founded in 1996 by Kerry Yo Nakagawa to preserve the history and legacy of Japanese American baseball, which includes the building of baseball’s bridge to the Pacific between the U.S. and Asia. To learn more about the educational activities of the NBRP, visit niseibaseball.com

A holiday debut for Bill ‘Devil’ Holland

Richmond Palladium-Item, Sept. 1, 1918

Editor’s note: This week we have an excellent submission from Alex Painter, kind of a follow-up to my recent interview with him about the recent release of his book on blackball in Richmond, Ind. I offer many thanks to Alex for submitted this article, and I encourage anyone else reading this who might want to submit a post for the blog! Just email me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com!

By Alex Painter

Labor Day 1918 was met with a different kind of optimism and exuberance that the holiday, not even four decades old, had ever experienced. By September of 1918, the ‘war to end all wars’, the First World War, was drawing to a close, but the United States’ rapid mobilization for warfare the year before had truly put the importance of the American industrial worker to the forefront of the American conscience — nearly as much as the doughboys dodging bullets, bombs and poisonous gases in the trenches overseas. The newfound possibilities of the American industrial machine would continue to spur invention and innovation for the coming decades. 

Baseball, too, would mobilize for the global conflict. Christy Matthewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Harry Heilman number just three of the 27 eventual members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who served the Allied war effort. All told, a full 38 percent of the major league baseball players would serve the war effort in some capacity.

Though Major League Baseball would continue play through wartime, some minor leagues suffered immensely from the player shortage. One such circuit was the Class B Central League, based primarily in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. The league, in existence since 1903, shuttered before the 1918 season, also citing attendance issues. 

One such member of the league, the Richmond Quakers, based in Richmond, Ind., who were set to compete in 1918 with legendary Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown as manager, suddenly went defunct. This rapid change of events was problematic for the east central Indiana city, who had just finished construction on Exhibition Park — a brand-new, $12,000 ballpark to house the minor-league Quakers the season before. 

Bill “Devil” Holland (standing at far left) with the 1920 Detroit Stars

Short of sandlot-caliber and prep clubs, there was no team around to use the new facility, much less have a hope of filling the seats with a viable number of spectators.  

Though the baseball outlook in the city looked bleak, Richmond sporting goods magnate George Brehm seized an opportunity out of Indianapolis, and successfully booked Warner Jewell’s ABC baseball team, an all-black club who were themselves without a home field, to use Exhibition Park for the remainder of the summer in early June. Jewell’s ABCs, though certainly a somewhat-known commodity, were a second-tier offshoot of the celebrated Indianapolis ABCs, an outfit owned and managed by the famed and future Negro Leagues executive C.I. Taylor.

An issue that Brehm would have been otherwise unaware of was that, due to inactivity, most of Jewell’s club had gone home; only three of the team members remained from their final game the previous month. 

In less than a week, a delightfully eclectic roster for the new all-black team was composed, including then-21-one-year-old future Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, with Jewell’s club formally taking on the moniker of the “Richmond Giants.”

Palladium-Item, Aug. 28, 1918

From June through the end of August, the Giants were the toast of the town on the baseball scene in Richmond, registering a 9-3-1 record, while defeating teams from larger cities such as Indianapolis and Dayton, Ohio. Blackball veterans such as George Board, Will McMurray and James Lynch, along with young upstarts such as Connie Day, William “Specks” Webster and Charleston, all suited up for the Giants that summer.

However, heading into Labor Day weekend, the team had not one but two doubleheaders on the slate, and the Giants were nearly tapped out. Injuries had taken their toll, as had players being called to military service (as such the case with Charleston). Only a couple of the Giants actually resided in Richmond, which certainly made travel logistics another issue facing the team. On Sunday, the Giants were to face the Muncie, Ind., Valentines twice, and the Richmond Athletics, the city’s all-star team, twice on Monday. 

Pitching, in particular, was running incredibly thin for the Giants.

In search of quick reinforcements, probably through an endorsement made by a team member, a teenager was plucked from the sandlots of eastside of Indianapolis named Elvis “Bill” Holland, a short, stocky, right-handed pitcher. It’s possible Holland was summoned due to an earlier recommendation from Charleston himself, who also grew up and lived on the city’s east side. 

Regardless of how he was originally solicited, the 17-year-old Holland suited up, and was handed the ball to start the first game of the holiday weekend against the Valentines on Sunday, Sept. 1, 1918. It would be his professional debut. 

The Valentines, a fast, tough unit, had just defeated the same team from Randolph County, Ind., that had dealt the Giants all three of their losses on the season. It is safe to say the lineup was seasoned, with a local newspaper even claiming there to be multiple former and future minor-league prospects on the roster. The teen was sure to have his hands full.

Richmond Palladium-Item, Sept. 2, 1918

The Giants offense made it a bit easier for Holland out of the gate, striking for two runs in the first and one in the bottom of the third. 

Using his lively fastball and an array of off-speed pitches (perhaps even an emery ball or two), Holland retired hitter after hitter after hitter. The seasoned Valentines had no answer for the teenage hurler, whose windup and delivery kept hitters off-balance (Satchel Paige later said “didn’t nobody pick up on his ball”), did not yield a hit until a bloop single in the top of the seventh inning.

That would be all the offense the Valentines could muster against Holland, whose Giants backed him with six runs, clinching an improbable 6-1 victory in his debut. The youngster was not only pitching for contact, but he was also flat-out missing bats, fanning 11 opposing hitters in the complete-game, one-hit gem.

“Holland, a youngster, did the hurling for the Giants,” the Richmond Palladium-Item wrote the following day. “His pitching was the best seen on the local diamonds this year in a Sunday game.”

The Giants tied the Valentines the second game that Sunday, and prepared for two more games the following day, Labor Day.

Holland would once again receive the ball to start the first game the following day, Sept. 2, this time against the Richmond Athletics. The Giants-Athletics doubleheader would actually be just one facet of the Labor Day athletic demonstrations; Giants outfielder Jack Hannibal, a professional boxer also known as “The Fighting Poor Boy” and “The Indianapolis Iron Man,” would spar 10 rounds after the doubleheader in a boxing exhibition. 

The Athletics were the de facto “all-star” team of Richmond’s Sunday Afternoon League (SAL). 

The teenage Holland, though squaring off mostly against men a decade his senior, battled once again. Unlike the previous day, his defense let him down a bit, registering four errors, and allowing for an unearned run in the first and three more in the fourth, and the Giants found themselves in a 6-3 hole by the eighth inning.

The Giants themselves would battle back, forcing extra innings, to which Holland would stay in the game all the way through the 11th inning until yielding the winning run to the Athletics in an ultimate 7-6 defeat.

But, when the dust settled, Holland “the colored moundsman, fanned 13 (more) men” than Monday, according to the Palladium-Item.

Quite a debut weekend for the stocky youth. In approximately 24 hours, Holland had thrown 20 innings, only allowed five earned runs (2.25 ERA), and struck out 24 hitters. 

The following season, the still-teenaged Holland would throw a couple games for the Richmond Giants once again. On May 11, 1919, he scored a 1-0 revenge win against the Athletics, again punching out 13 hitters via the strikeout. 

Spurred in part by his exploits with the Giants in Richmond, Holland was able to land a contract with the Detroit Stars of the freshly-minted Negro National League. He would spend three seasons with the club, starting (and winning) the second-most games in team history, behind Baseball Hall of Famer Andy ‘Lefty’ Cooper. His 249 strikeouts again rank only behind Cooper’s 388. 

Holland eventually acquired the nickname “Devil” because of a legendary competitive streak. Negro League second baseman Dick Seay once called Holland the toughest pitcher he ever faced, while also reflecting on his fiery disposition, “(If) you hit him, and the next time you came up there, you had to duck. And you knew it. He’d look at you mad, (and) let you know he’s going to throw at you: ‘Get ready to duck now.’”

Holland would spend the majority of his career pitching in New York City, pitching for the New York Lincoln Giants (1923-1924, 1929-1930), the Brooklyn Royal Giants (1925-1928) and the New York Black Yankees (1931-1941).

On July 6, 1930, Holland, then a member of the Lincoln Giants, became the first black pitcher to appear in a game at Yankee Stadium. His proudest day.

The East-West All-Star line-up, with Bill Holland, first row, third from left

In his 21st season, 1939, the -year-old Holland was named to his first East-West Negro Leagues All-Star team. He would pitch two more seasons before retiring after the 1941 season. 

A documented career that formally began as a teenager on Labor Day at Exhibition Park in Richmond, Ind., ended with Holland leaving an indelible mark on the Negro Leagues. According to formal league statistics on Seamheads.com, Holland ranks:

Strikeouts – 1,094 (fifth).

Complete Games – 173 (fifth).

Games – 291 (eighth).

Wins – 116 (10th).

Holland — whom “Cool Papa” Bell put in his top four Negro Leagues pitchers of all-time, with the likes of Smokey Joe Williams, Bullet Joe Rogan and Satchel Paige — died in New York on Dec. 3, 1973, at the age of 72.

New book examines black baseball in Richmond, Ind.

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. 

John Merida

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!

Author bio

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.

Kid Brown’s saga comes to a conclusion

The Secret 9, with Eddie Brown, circled, top row, third player from left.

Editor’s note: With this post, we come to the conclusion of the saga of Eddie “Kid” Brown, one of the members of the Secret 9, Satchmo’s semipro baseball team in New Orleans during the early 1930s, and a stellar pro boxer in and around the Big Easy for a half-dozen years.

For the earlier installments of the Brown story, go here, here and here. Other posts and articles about the Secret 9 in general can be found here, here and here.

Without further ado, the tale of Kid Brown wraps up …

By late July 1936, Eddie Brown Sr. was running out of gas after a successful pro career as a clever, resilient lightweight and welterweight in New Orleans and around the South. Matched against youngster Edgar Theard, the newbie — who only had one more pro fight after this one — handled Brown in a preliminary on a big draw card.

Here’s how Pete Baird (who apparently had a fascination with facial hair) of the Times-Picayune described the final pro fight of Eddie Brown Sr.’s career:

“The battle of moustaches wound up in the tank when Eddie Brown went down smiling and out smiling in the first round before the taps of Edgar Theard. It must be said, though, that Edgar was plenty vicious when he came out, seeing Brown’s moustache was more virile than his own. He tore right in with more vehemence than was necessary.”

Weirdly enough, Louisiana Weekly sports editor Cliff Thomas also was hypnotized by the whole moustache deal, zeroing in on said furry features in his column of Aug. 1, 1936:

“The two fellows with the moustaches who fought one of the prelims! I wonder if its [sic] really a fact that the reason Theard tried to murder Brown in the first round was because he was jealous of Brown’s moustache being longer that his?”

Thomas billed Theard as “an exceptionally rough young man,” echoing Baird’s assessment of Edgar’s merciless onslaught. Lip hair aside, Thomas gave a tip of his hat to Eddie, albeit as part of the scribe’s assessment of a new fighter on the scene.

“Young P.G. Carson,” Thomas penned, “to your scribe’s opinion the classiest boxer the Crescent City has turned out since the reign of the clever Eddie ‘Kid’ Brown, easily beat ‘Ringer’ Thompson, Baton Rouge lightweight pride, in a bout at the ‘Red Stick’ City last week.”

As fate would have it, Thomas’ compliment ended up being terse eulogy for Brown’s professional boxing career — at the age of just 26, Kid appears to have fought his last pro bout. Little else was said about his graceful but overlooked walk toward the sunset.

(Interestingly, Eddie Brown’s last pro fight also attracted one of the largest audiences of his career — 6,500 fans flooded Heinemann Park, home of the New Orleans Pelicans, for a gate of nearly $3,600, or nearly $66,000 in today’s dollars, for a huge slate of bouts.)

Back to present day, some of Eddie Brown Jr.’s most vibrant memories of his father are from Senior’s days in the ring, especially from ringside, where he soaked up the good, bad and ugly of the sport.

“[It was] amazing, and sometimes bloody and sweaty, but more amazing,” he told me.

After Kid retired from his boxing career he stayed close to the fight business by working as a judge and referee on countless bouts, in addition to coaching youngsters. 

“He also was an official for many local fights in the ’50s and ’60’s,” Eddie Jr. said. “There were fights on Monday and Saturday nights when I was a kid, and I saw hundreds of them and sat ringside.”

Through his father, Eddie brushed up against fistic royalty on a routine basis.

“I saw and met Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Tony Licata, Jimmy Mince, Percy Pugh and Jerry Pelligrini, who’s a barber about six blocks from my house,” he said.

Eddie Jr., while not as successful and prominent as his father, carried on the family’s athletic heritage.

“I was pretty good at football and basketball, but I spent a lot of time running in 10k and 5k races,” he said.

An advertisement in the Louisiana Weekly in 1932. Note that Weekly sports editor Eddie Burbridge is Brown’s manager.

After Brown Sr. retired from fighting himself, he worked feverishly for more than 30 years as a bout referee and judge, often stationing himself ringside for many of the top regional fights held in New Orleans and winning a reputation as a fair, decisive and insightful official. In 1946, for example, the famed Pittsburgh Courier newspaper ran a short dispatch from New Orleans covering the Candy McDanielsAl Gomez fight, in which the publication stated that Brown “used flawless judgment in stopping the fight” in declaring a technical knockout victory for Gomez.

Pittsburgh Courier, Jan. 19, 1946

In addition, as mentioned a few times earlier, he coached youngsters in the sweet science and served as a mentor for dozens of kids and young adults in the city. Eddie Brown Jr. said his father coached “all around the city” — at the New Orleans Police Department, Loyola University, and the Dryades YMCA. Eddie noted that his father also tutored folks in fencing. 

The Dryades YMCA today.

Eddie Sr. also took part in community events, benefits and fundraisers for various causes; in 1944, he stepped back in the ring (albeit briefly) for a match on a huge slate of exhibitions and “old timers” bouts for the benefit of the WWII war loan drive. (Admission to the fistic bonanza was the purchase of war stamps and bonds.)

The July 1, 1944, issue of the Louisiana Weekly reported that “outstanding pugilists from bygone years, boxing promoters, sportsmen, businessmen and entertainers are appearing in a gigantic war benefit boxing program at the Coliseum Arena” and called it a “novel method of supporting the war effort …”

“Bringing once again into the magic square circle — into the public spotlight — many of the city’s most [word missing] prizefighters of past years,” including Brown, Tommy Flores, Chocolate Bon Bon and Battling Ferdie, the Weekly reported. In all, 14 bouts were carded for the event.

Brown took part in other community charity events as well; in June 1932, he was part of an all-star card at St. Raymond Church’s baseball park, a boxing “stag” that served as a fundraising for the church. (Throughout its existence, St. Raymond’s ballfield hosted countless pro, semipro, club, college and high school baseball games, featuring classic local black squads like the Algiers Giants, the Melpomene White Sox, the Crescent Stars and St. Raymond’s own teams. In fact, none other than Louis Armstrong attended a Secret 9 game at the ballpark in 1931. The field was located at the intersection of Milton Street and Paris Avenue, a few blocks west of Dillard University and a little ways northeast of the fairgrounds race course. St. Raymond parish eventually merged with St. Leo.)

Kid Brown also dipped his toes in the managerial and promotional fields, handling younger fighters, and setting up and promoting bouts in his own right. In 1957, Brown was reported as managing Ray Portilla, a native of Mexico who eventually was based in New York.

New Orleans States sports columnist Harry Martinez wrote that Portilla’s camp was seeking a match with New Orleanian Ralph Dupas, who would later go on to win the world light middleweight crown in 1963. However, Martinez’ piece also notes that Brown was associated with Gene Fullmer, a Utah native who snatched the world middleweight title in 1957 from none other than Sugar Ray Robinson, considered by many to be the greatest boxer in American history, if not the world as well.

Kid Brown was likewise characteristically involved in New Orleans boxing tournaments and competitions, such as the Crescent City Amateur Boxing Association elimination tournament. In 1947, for example, Brown arranged and promoter several rounds of the CCABA tourney, first at St. Bernard Arena, then at the famed Coliseum Arena. 

Arthur Schott, founder of the New Orleans SABR committee and family owner of Schott and Company meat packing, where Eddie Brown Sr., working after the latter’s retirement from boxing. (Photo courtesy Derby Gisclair.)

Outside of his athletic pursuits, Eddie Brown Sr. worked at Schott and Company meat-packing business on Poydras Street. This fact is particularly interesting because a member of the company’s third generation, Arthur Schott, served as Louisiana’s official baseball historian for more than 40 years. SABR’s New Orleans chapter, of which I’m a member, is named the Schott-Pelican Chapter his honor. The chapter’s current president is none other than Derby Gisclair, whom I’ve already quoted in this post (in addition to local baseball, he’s also the authority on boxing history in NOLA). Derby has been a good friend to me and has enthusiastically supported and encouraged me in the pursuit of the Secret 9 mystery, for which I offer him many and continued thanks.

Official government documents state that Eddie Brown Sr. worked at a variety of jobs; the 1930 federal Census reported him as a porter at a lunch stand, while the 1940 Census lists him as a painter at a private address. His World War II draft card states that he was employed at Southern Bell Telephone Co. on Poydras Street.

Eddie Brown’s WWII draft card

Over time, Brown and his family lived at various locales in the city, including North Roman, Gasquet Street, North Robertson and Abadie streets. They spent much of their lives on the edge of the historic Treme neighborhood.

Eddie “Kid” Brown Sr. died in May 1976 at the age of 76. While much of New Orleans — especially the white population — wasn’t aware that an athletic legend had passed from their ranks. However, a few did recognize the final bell in the life of Kid Brown, including then-Times-Picayune sports editor Bob Roesler, who, unlike many Crescent City scribes before him, was extremely progressive in terms of face relations, and he did much to bring to readers black sports history, including boxing, and, even more so, the Negro Leagues.

In the May 26, 1976, issue of the T-P, Roesler noted Brown’s contributions to the city and the community:

“The boxing community lost a gem of a guy when Eddie “Kid” Brown died Sunday. A pretty good guy with the gloves in his younger days, Eddie spent the past 10 years working with kids in the Police gym … as the fight mob would say, ‘for free.’”

It’s significant to note that while this post and connected research and interviews sprang from the effort to find more information about a baseball team — the Secret 9 — and while Eddie Brown did play baseball at some point for at least one semipro club, I was unable to find much information at all about Brown’s further exploits on the baseball diamond.

Now, that doesn’t mean there’s not anything to find or that Eddie Brown’s stint with Satchmo’s team was the sum total of Brown’s hardball career. But I just haven’t been able to comb the archives of the Louisiana Weekly and other files and collections pertinent to this project. Rest assured that if more details or historical finds do emerge that I’ll post them here.

I’ll also continue to dig into the history and details of the famed/mysterious Secret 9, including attempting to ID the fellows in the photo, and if anything is uncovered, you’ll find the report here!

However, for my next post about the club, I’ll look at the origins of the famous photo itself and chronicle a New Orleans artist who vanished after leaping into the Mississippi River …

A few notes on events, people and places in Eddie “Kid” Brown’s athletic career …

Times-Picayune, Oct. 14, 1979

  • Lou Ovalasiti promoted many of Eddie Brown’s fights and served as a boxing kingpin and promoter supreme for decades in the mid-20th century in the Crescent City. Ovalasiti hyped and touted many black boxers and bouts over the years, including Eddie Kid Brown and his opponents. In fact, according to an obituary written by the Times-Picayune upon Ovalasiti’s death in October 1979, the Italian immigrant and retired businessman was “the first promoter to bring black boxers to New Orleans at the Coliseum Arena.”
  • Most of Brown’s bouts at Westside Arena — which was located on the westbank of the metro New Orleans area, across the river the main bulk of the city — were arranged and promoted by one Anthony “Tony” Tripani (sometimes spelled as Trapani). Tripani’s heavy involvement in the area boxing community is well documented in contemporaneous media coverage, and BoxRec.com lists five official events sponsored by Tripani, all at Westside Arena, between 1932-34.

But there’s more to the picture — it seems that Tripani, in addition to being a boxing promoter, was something of a crime kingpin in the city as well. News reports from the time state that Tripani operated a “soft drink establishment” or a “soft drink stand” in the McDonoghville neighborhood on the westbank, but that legitimate business appears to have been a front for all sorts of illegal doings on Tripani’s part, including bootlegging, bookmaking, illicit gambling and lottery violations.

In the 1950s, he became ensnared in investigations of organized crime. In early April 1952, he was one of 13 suspects arrested in a wide-ranging probe into gambling in New Orleans. The investigation soon widened to include police officers’ income, hinting at possible kickback schemes or other illicit payments from alleged mobsters, as well as bribery of public officials; Tripani, having been nabbed for, in one instance, illegal gambling, and in another bust, public bribery, was one of the witnesses called to appear before various grand juries.

Tripani died in 1964.

  • Another of Kid Brown’s foes worth mentioning is Darcey “K.O.” White, another popular, well traveled fighter who, like Wesley Farrell, brought a bunch of attention to the New Orleans African-American boxing scene. White, who was roughly the same age as Brown, racked up 69 professional bouts between 1930-1943, posting an overall 45-22-2 mark, including 16 victories by knockout. White was based in New Bedford, Mass., and spent the first several years of his career fighting in New England before heading Southern to spend about two-thirds of his pro tenure in and around the Crescent City. At the tail end of his career, White had earned enough national cred and renown that he boxed against several white fighters as well.

White, a welterweight, split a pair of fights with Eddie Brown; he knocked Brown out Feb. 2, 1934, at the Coliseum Arena, but Kid gained revenge just under a year later by besting White on points in a 12-rounder at Lincoln Park on Jan. 11, 1935.

The daily newspapers gave, at least by their meager standards, decent attention to Eddie’s Jan. 11, 1935, encounter with K.O. White. Reported the New Orleans States newspaper:

“Brown fought a smart battle, letting his opponent come to him and counter-punching to pile up his lead, which was a very substantial one. Only in the 12th stanza did White look like the ‘killer’ he has often been called. In that round, evidently realizing that he was far behind, White tried desperately to get over a knockout punch, but Brown was ready for this attack and tied his man up to keep out of danger.”

(Unfortunately, a frigid night in the Big Easy apparently kept fans away from the outdoor venue at Lincoln Park, resulting in a miniscule crown and gate receipts of only $192. By comparison, one night later, none other than Joe Louis drew about 5,000 folks to Pittsburgh for his victory over a German, Hans Birkie. The take for the bout — which was Louis’ 14th win in a row and which came more than two years before the Brown Bomber won the world heavyweight crown for the first time — was a whopping $7,500.)

  • The Coliseum Arena was arguably New Orleans’ premier indoor sports and entertainment facility for nearly 40 years. Located between the Tulane-Gravier and Treme neighborhoods, just a few blocks northwest of where I-10 runs now.

The Coliseum Arena

Opened in 1922 and closed in 1960, the arena housed 8,000 seats but could pack in a total of 8,500 spectators, and a slew of famous pugilists appeared in the facility over the years, including African-American immortals like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, and local fistic heroes like Willie Pastrano and Ralph Dupas. In addition to the fistic goings-on, concerts, speeches and other events took place, including, most memorably, an appearance by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. (Today the site houses a metal-supply company.)

  • Lincoln Park, meanwhile, appears to have been some sort of amusement park facility in the Gert Town neighborhood, about a half-mile down Carrollton Avenue toward the river from Heinemann/Pelican Stadium; it included a skating rink, a ballpark and other sporting and entertainment facilities. Built just after the turn of the century, Lincoln was designed to provide recreational and spectatorial opportunities for the city’s African-American population, thereby obliquely reinforcing the existing Jim Crow system. Lincoln Park was used from 1902-1930, which doesn’t jibe with the heavy post-1930 activity the facility had, as reported on BoxRec.
  • The Westside Arena, where Tony Tripani sponsored numerous bouts featuring African-American fighters, including a bunch with Ed Brown, was located on the westbank of New Orleans in the now largely residential and commercial neighborhood of McDonoghville. It was owned by the Westbank Athletic Club; Derby told me that the 2,500-capacity venue “was the only boxing facility on the Westbank.” It opened in December 1931, and Kid Brown enjoyed his first Westside engagement a month later, besting Fast Black by points. According to BoxRec.com, 18 events were staged at the Westside Arena between 1932 and 1939.
  • Eddie Brown managed to land some national exposure at various points in his career. For example, he garnered regional and national ink in February 1935, when a lineup of pugilists from Tampa, Fla., arrived in New Orleans for a slate of matches against NOLA locals, including Eddie Brown, who drew a clash against Speedy Red.

The bout was covered, via correspondent, by the Atlanta Daily World, the largest black newspaper in the South, which trumpeted Red as the lightweight king of Florida, asserting the Tampa fighter came to NOLA to annex this state’s crown as well. 

Given Red’s ballyhooed prowess, after the fight was over, Daily World sports editor Sanders S. Mason opined that his state’s ambassador “was robbed of the judges[‘] nod in his 12 round battle with” Brown. Mason cited reports from New Orleans’ Lincoln Park that the see-saw battle was given to Brown but “should have been called a draw.” Mason reported that the “attendance was small but every bout was very exciting, the gate receipts was [sic] $203,” or about $3,750 in today’s money.

  • Finally, I come to the San Jacinto Club, which, I am quite embarrassed to admit, was completely new to me when I was researching and writing this post. I say embarrassed because of how important the organization was to the New Orleans black community — so important that I really should have learned about it much earlier than this, because by all accounts the San Jacinto was amazing.

The San Jacinto Social and Pleasure Club seems to have combined the community awareness and social uplift of the Knights of Pythias, the cultural and festive atmosphere of the famed Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and the athletic prowess and activity of Big Easy athletic clubs like the Olympic. As such, I really can’t do the club justice in this post — it really deserves its own blog post, or book chapter, or entire book.

The boxing ring at the San Jacinto Club.

So it shall. I’m working on a separate blog post about the San Jacinto Club that will try to focus on the organization’s activities in the baseball world. Hopefully that will come soon, so keep checking back!

For now, I’ll leave you with a taste of the type of wild, wooly popularity and importance held by the San Jacinto, in the form of excerpts from then-Louisiana Weekly sports editor Eddie Burbridge following one of Eddie “Kid” Brown’s fights there. The passages are a bit long, but they’re also somewhat entrancing.

We’ll start with Burbridge’s prose from the May 3, 1930, issue of the paper:

“A fight fan, obviously a lover of the ear-puffing racket, writes us concerning the verdict ‘donating’ (as he puts it), Jackie Moore, after taking a sound thrashing from Eddie ‘Kid’ Brown, Sunday evening at the San Jacinto Club Arena.

“The fan, E. Abraham, thinks that a competent room of judges should be selected because the present trio, after their ‘wild’ decision accompanying Sunday’s fiasco, clearly showed that they don’t know the difference between the winner of a boxing bout and an acrobat flop artist. He furthered explained that he had no particular interest in either of the combatants, but he does want to see a verdict go the right way. ‘Brown was in front by a country mile,’ he said, ‘and everybody in the arena knew it, and it was like asking everyone to contribute a five dollar bill to the Association for the Care of Blind Cats, when the judges’ vote was taken and Jackie Moore’s right arm was hoisted, proclaiming him the winner.’

“‘If the judges are accountable to distinguish between the beater and the beaten, (and it is clear as a crystal that they don’t), then they should get out of those comfortable chairs and turn them over to a group that knows its battles and which way they should go. Such farces are intolerable, Abraham states further, and it serves to nauseate one after he witnessed a very pleasant scrap. Such dumb practices must be remedied for the good of the game.”

A week later, Burbridge continued, and hopefully ended, the gathering storm of controversy:

Looks like E. Abraham touched a pretty soft spot when he ridiculed the judges of the San Jacinto Club Arena in his scorcher that strutted down the double column last week.

Earl Raby for one, one of the decision renderers of the downtown battle-house, is on Mr. Abraham’s neck and reports reached this den that [?] name-sake is not alone in frowning down upon the ‘Dissatisfied Fan’ which means that Abraham is not so far up in the good graces of the ridiculed.

Both forces (if such nom de plume is permissable [sic] in this case), dropped articles telling the other just where to get off. Both found their way to the basket, however, because we feel that too much friction will be produced on this one sheet if all that fire was splattered thereon. Why, the reader wouldn’t be able to read for the smoke. So we’ll take the chance of dropping a little suggestion on the subject.

It seems to us that a lot of good could be done if Messrs. Abraham, Clairville, Fraise, Raby and the other judges and powers that be of the arena where to stick their feet under some table in a group and discuss this decision affair frankly. Every one, from our knowledge of them, seems sincere enough about what the other fellow thinks, and with this in view, we’re willing to wager that after a half-hour’s DISCUSSION [itals in original] (and we do mean discussion) fan and judge would understand each other perfectly, and would have made the entire racket pleasing to all concerned. Unpopular decisions are common everywhere the glove slamming affair is legal (or illegal, too, for that matter), and all that can be realized from the present method of thrashing the affair is a mere newspaper controversy. Controversies are but controversies, is true enough, but one around a table will bring much better results. Give it a trial, gentlemen, and you’ll find it still holds good … and will help Old John Q. Publik.