A look at the desegregation of the PCL

Amy Essington’s new book

Founded in 1903, the Pacific Coast League is one of the country’s oldest, most venerated and most tradition-laden professional baseball circuits. Because of its historical existence “out West,” far from many other pro leagues, the now-Triple-A PCL has arguably the richest, most distinctive and most idiosyncratic histories of all the high-level leagues.

Regionally revered and geographically molded, the tale of the PCL involves its own unique, and until now unheralded stories of racial integration. In a region that, throughout the early and mid-20th century, featured a racially and culturally diverse population — and, therefore, a similarly diverse baseball scene — that made the desegregation of the PCL, from the time John Ritchey debuted with the San Diego Padres in 1948 to Artie Wilson and Bob Boyd joined the Seattle Rainers in 1952, a fascinating tale.

That story has just been illuminated and fleshed out by Amy Essington, a lecturer at California State University at Fullerton and Cal Poly Pomona and the executive director of Historical Society of Southern California (among other roles), whose book, “The Integration of the Pacific Coast League: Race and Baseball in the West,” was published last June by the University of Nebraska Press.

In the volume, Essington does a fantastic job of portraying what made the PCL and its desegregation story so compelling, so complex and so unheralded. With a focused but also breezy and approachable tone and style, the book looks at the integration experiences of each of the existing PCL teams at the time (eight in total) with a light touch that emphasis personalities and the human experience over number-crunching.

In other words, the book is an excellent buy and highly recommended by this blogger. Below is a lightly-edited email interview conducted with Essington earlier this month …

Ryan Whirty: How did you get interested in the subject of the integration of the PCL? What about it drew you to it?

Amy Essington: I have always been interested in generations which create change. Why that generation decides to act differently from generations before and how their actions change society. I came to study integration through [National Baseball Hall of Famer] Effa Manley. She was someone who broke barriers and challenged norms for people of her race and gender. She also played a key role in the transition of Negro League players to major league teams. Major league teams wanted to sign several players under contract with the Newark Eagles, the team she co-owned with her husband, Abe Manley. The Brooklyn Dodgers did not compensate the Kansas City Monarchs for the contract of Jackie Robinson. Effa Manley knew that was a terrible precedent and demanded money for the contract of [NBHOFer and American League integrator] Larry Doby.

As I began to research integration, I realized it is much more than Jackie Robinson. While he and [Brooklyn Dodgers owner] Branch Rickey played leading roles, I believe the success of integration came when other players joined other teams across the major and minor leagues.

RW: Why do you think that there had been so little interest in the topic before you approached it?

AE: Within baseball history, fewer historians focus on the West and fewer focus on the minor leagues. There is a very active interest in the history of the Pacific Coast League on the West Coast. I think there is bias in baseball history toward teams from East Coast and on the major leagues. A story I tell frequently is about the summer I worked as an intern in the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a wonderful experience, but I found that a lot of the folks were more interested in the teams in the east of the Mississippi and teams and players from the major leagues. Even the files at the Hall of Fame did not have much about the West or from West Coast newspapers. Out of that summer, my interest in the baseball in the West and integration beyond the National and American leagues joined together and became a project on the integration of the Pacific Coast League.

Amy Essington at the National Baseball Hall of Fame during an earlier summer internship

RW: How good were the PCL teams of the area in question, and how good were John Ritchey and the other men who integrated the league?

AE: I am a social historian, so I don’t focus on stats as much as others do, but individuals who integrated the PCL included major-league quality players. Fifteen of the players had time in the major leagues, averaging just over three seasons. Players like Frank Barnes, Bob Boyd, Luke Easter, Minnie Miñoso, Harry Simpson and Bob Thurman. They spent between a cup of coffee and 12 seasons in the major leagues. Many of these players had already passed the peak of their playing days, otherwise more might gone to the majors.

RW: What kind of treatment did these trailblazers face? What challenges did they face along the way?

AE: The treatment players experienced was mixed. It varied by player, by team and by city. The integration of the PCL was not covered by the press in the same way that the players in the majors were covered, and certainly not to the extent that Jackie Robinson was scrutinized. They did face challenges on the field with spikes and bean balls from opposing teams, but they also faced segregation off the field. The West did not have the formal Jim Crow segregation of the South, but it did have discrimination. Non-white players might have to sit in a segregated balcony at the movie theater or discover which restaurants would refuse to serve them. During his first spring training, John Ritchey did not stay in the hotel with his teammates. He was newly married, but even in Ontario, Calif., he was set apart.

RW: What interesting or surprising little nuggets of information did you come across while working on this book?

AE: When I began researching, I knew about Jimmy Claxton playing for Oakland in 1916, but I thought I would be focusing on the period of 1948-1952. What surprised me was the diversity of players who played on PCL teams before 1948. Teams included Native Hawaiian, Asian, Asian-American and Latinos players. The players who faced discrimination were the players defined by others as black. As I argue in my book, the color line was about excluding blackness.

RW: What has been the reaction to the book since it was published? Are you encouraged about the possibility that it might help lead the way for further scholarship about African-American and other people of color throughout the history of the PCL?

AE: The reaction has been generally positive. One of my goals was to document the events of integration across the PCL. The list of players who integrated was not new, but the process of how the league integrated had not been explored. I hope that the book will help remind folks that baseball was played across the country and that the West played an important role in integration. The stories of the people of color who played in the PCL need to be told in greater detail. The West has such an interesting and diverse racial history that our story is different than in other parts of the country.

RW: Where do you go from here? What are you working on now?

AE: I would like to look more closely at the seasons of integration and the experiences of the players day-to-day. In my book, I brought the story up to the first player who integrated, or really desegregated, each team. I would like to investigate more about what the players experienced during the seasons. I am writing an article about Jackie Robinson growing up in Pasadena. I am also working on a project of Effa Manley living in Southern California. She came to Los Angeles in 1956. She died there and is buried in Culver City.


Negro League bobbleheads, and how you can help

Negro Leagues Kickstarter Main Pic v3

The already produced Satchel Paige bobblehead (all images courtesy Phil Sklar/The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum)

In one of the most unlikely but thoroughly delightful developments within the sports memorabilia culture over the last two or three decades has been the emergence and evolution of the bobblehead. As the calendar turns to 2019, players and other sports personalities know they’ve hit the big time when they receive one of the little keepsakes with the bobbing, oversize noggins.

Couple that with the upcoming celebration the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first Negro National League in 1920, and the time has arrived — well deserved and overdue — for the creation of an officially licensed series of bobbleheads honoring the greats of the Negro Leagues.

As the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City works with the Dreams Fulfilled organization to plan for a celebration of that centennial moment, the two entities have joined with the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum — itself in the final stages of construction and development — located in Milwaukee to produce a line of bobbleheads memorializing the 30 legendary players, one manager and one team owner named the the NLBM’s Negro League Centennial Team, the roster of which was unveiled last year.

To that end, a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation and production of the bobblehead series was launched Dec. 12 and runs through Jan.7, which gives folks several more days to contribute. A Satchel Paige bobblehead has already been produced, and one for Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley has been designed.

The following is a lightly edited email interview about the bobblehead Kickstarter effort with Phil Sklar, the founder of the bobblehead museum:

Ryan Whirty: What inspired you to launch the series of Negro Leagues bobbleheads?

Phil Sklar: We were approached by Jay Caldwell, the founder of NegroLeaguesHistory.com, about collaborating on a series of Negro Leagues bobbleheads. He is leading the effort related to the special exhibit at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum for the Negro Leagues centennial in 2020 and wanted bobbleheads to play a prominent role. We really liked the idea, and I’ve always been interested in learning more about the Negro Leagues since going to Kansas City as a teenager and having an opportunity to go to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

RW: Why do you think there’s been an extreme dearth so far of Negro Leagues bobbleheads? Are you hoping to fill a much-needed niche with this project?

PS: I think there are a few reasons. The first is that bobbleheads weren’t being produced back when the Negro Leaguers were playing. However, there weren’t bobbleheads when Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and other legends were playing, and many of those Hall of Famers have a dozen bobbleheads or more. Just under half of the players in the Centennial Series have had a bobblehead before, but many of those bobbleheads weren’t readily available. A few teams have honored Negro Leaguers with bobbleheads and the NLBM has produced several, but in general, a very small number of Negro Leagues players have had bobbleheads.  

Effa Manley Bobblehead

The design for the Effa Manley bobblehead

RW: How has the Kickstarter campaign gone so far? Are you optimistic that you’ll reach your goal?

PS: The campaign has been excellent so far! We hit our initial $10,000 goal within 24 hours of launching the campaign and are now approaching $60,000, which is our second stretch goal. Although we were thrilled to reach the goal so soon, the full cost of producing 500 of each legend featured in the Centennial Series is over $100,000, and a production run of at least 500 enables us to offer the bobbleheads at a reasonable retail price so more people can afford them.

The organizers agreed to take on this risk if the Kickstarter reached the $10,000 goal, but going over the goal will help alleviate this burden, enable us to produce additional bobbleheads featuring other teams and players, and promote the series more broadly. Our first stretch goal was $40,000, and since we hit that goal, we’ll be producing the first bobblehead of [Newark Eagles owner] Effa Manley, who is the only female member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

RW: How are the players and managers to be represented in the bobblehead series going to be chosen? How can readers and the rest of the public participate in the selection process?

PS: The Negro League Centennial Team (1920 – 2020) will be comprised of 30 of the greatest African-American and Cuban players from 1895-1947 plus a manager and a team owner. Each individual will be depicted on a baseball-shaped base with replica of Kansas City’s Paseo YMCA, the site where the Negro National League was organized on Feb. 13, 1920. Satchel Paige was the first player selected to the Centennial team, and his bobblehead has been completed. Paige will be joined by 10 additional pitchers, three catchers, five outside infielders (1B, 3B), three inside infielders (2B, SS), seven outfielders, one utility player, a manager and an owner. The selected players were voted on through an on-line poll and supplemented by a selection of five additional, deserving players.


The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum is preparing to open to the public

RW: What is the status of the Bobblehead Museum? How close are you to opening, and what still needs to be done?

PS: The Hall of Fame and Museum has been set up for several months, and we’re just putting some finishing touches on it while we wait for the final city permits. We were delayed by the need to install a sprinkler system, and that process should be done next week! We have a preview event for members Jan. 5 and 6, and we’ll be opening to the public in January and will have a grand opening in the spring. The collection is approaching 10,000 unique bobbleheads and growing daily. We have about 6,500 of those on display with the ability to rotate and have special exhibits.

RW: Why do you think bobbleheads in general have become so popular in America and across the world? What about them appeals to fans and collectors?

PS: I think bobbleheads have become so popular because they’re affordable, fun, and they appeal to virtually everyone. They often appreciate in value, which makes collecting them an even more attractive hobby. We see all age groups collecting and enjoying bobbleheads, and that’s likely due to the affordability — a majority of bobbleheads are “free” since fans receive them when going to a game.

For more information on or to contribute to the Negro League bobblehead Kickstarter effort, go here. To check out the The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, use this link. The Negro League Baseball Museum Facebook page is here. Finally, check out the Dreams Fulfilled effort here.

Read an article about the Negro League bobbleheads in the Kansas City Star here and one written by the Associated Press posted on ESPN.com as well.



New book reveals overlooked legends


Image courtesy McFarland Publishing and Mitch Lutzke

I’ve been away for a while, so I think I do need to swing back into action, and what better way to do so than highlighting a fantastic new book by a SABR and Malloy Conference friend.

McFarland earlier this year published “The Page Fence Giants: A History of Black Baseball’s Pioneering Champions,” by Mitch Lutzke, an exhaustive, very thoroughly researched volume about the Page Fence Giants, the talent-laden, all-black baseball club based in Adrian, Mich., in the 1890s. Sponsored by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company and gathering together the cream of the crop of the nation’s best African-American players and managers.

For several fleeting but shining seasons, the Page Fence Giants fielded a squad that was the equal of just about any other team, black or white, in the Midwest. Both athletically and entrepreneurially trailblazing, the Giants come alive with Lutzke’s stellar book. Like many McFarland baseball-themed releases, the tome is extremely detailed and chronicles just about every moment of the team’s brief existence.

However, from those minute details Lutzke teases out the team’s larger place in American history, placing it in the context of such landmark social, political and cultural events as the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court case, the recruitment of America’s young men for the Spanish-American War, the birth of the Progressive political movement, the Gilded Age, and the tumultuous economy and Long Depression of the late 19th century. Absolutely check this book out.

As the Lansing State Journal‘s Ray Walsh put it earlier this year, “The well-designed 264-page trade paperback turns back the clock over 120 years, showcasing a wide variety of information and history relating to the one of America’s best baseball teams.”

Below is a lightly-edited email interview I conducted last week with Mitch:


Author Mitch Lutzke (right) with friend Mike Neal sporting replica Page Fence Giants jerseys (photo courtesy Mitch Lutzke).

Ryan Whirty: What inspired you to research and write this book? How did you come across the subject of the Page Fence Giants?

Mitch Lutzke: I basically stumbled upon the team. To make a long story short, I was researching for a history book about where I live in Michigan. I came across a story of Lansing, Mich., organizing a minor league team in the Michigan State League in 1895. As Williamston (where I live and teach) is about 17 miles to the east, we were also caught up in the “baseball fever” of the time.

A local group of Williamston businessmen [in the 19th century] organized a baseball association and staged games between amateurs and professionals in a hastily erected ballpark. They mentioned a Bill Binga (who was a black ball player from Lansing at the time), who they eventually hired that summer to play as a local ringer in a game. They also mentioned trying to get the Page Fence Giants to play a game in town. I simply wrote that team name on a sticky note and put it in a large file on 1895 area baseball.

I wrote the chapter on baseball [in the history book he was researching] and about some bad blood between Williamston and nearby Mason and humorous and slanderous accusations against the people in both towns — all over baseball games in 1895!

After the history book was published in October 2014, I was reviewing my files and came across the Page Fence Giants sticky note. When a search on the Internet turned up very little (or at least enough to satisfy me), I thought maybe they might be a subject of my third book. But, I was also considering other topics, so it was just one of several topics I was considering.

I then blindly emailed several people involved in the history of black baseball and asked them what they thought about a book on the Page Fence Giants. I got unanimous support, but not much information. I drove to the Lenawee County Museum in Adrian, hoping and expecting volumes of material. There was a small file with a few articles and that was it. Using that as the back drop, I figured it was time for someone to write about the Giants and that guy was me. And, now in 2018, here we are with the first book ever on these championship gentlemen.

RW: How challenging was it to compile all the information contained in the book? What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced while researching and writing?

ML: The research was the hardest part. There was no previous book to help. Sol White‘s black baseball book in 1907 only made a passing reference to the Giants, even though he played second base from June to October in 1895 on the team. [Robert] Peterson’s “Only the Ball Was White” has, I believe, two paragraphs on the team, [and] a couple of magazine articles here and there, was about what I began with.

So, naively thinking a black championship team (they won the 1896 “colored” baseball title) would have many stories, I only had to find them. Boy, was I wrong. I began by reading The Sporting News on microfilm, courtesy of my SABR membership. Well, I expected entire stories on the Giants. Not so. There were only two or three I think in the years I read TSN, from the spring of 1894 to the spring of 1899.

So, I had to find teams and leagues they were playing in white baseball and hope to find a sentence here or there. Reading each edition of [TSN column] “Caught on the Fly” was also helpful. I then was able to use and index and search modes for the Sporting Life, which saved time on that magazine.

But, I estimated 200 hours of reading of those two national publications, before I began the microfilm reading of Midwestern newspapers. Unlike today, when you have multi-paragraph stories, back in the 1890s, a four-sentence story was a lengthy deal. I mostly came across lines such as, “Wilson struck out 12 as the Giants won 8-0. A good crowd in Hudson,” or something like that. Then, I would locate the Hudson paper and so on.


The two Adrian, Mich., dailies covered the team in 1894 when [the Giants] organized to a great extent and into early 1895. But when the mostly white Adrian Demons joined the Michigan State League that same spring, the two papers focused the bulk of their coverage on the white team — though black players George Wilson and Vasco Graham played all year with the Demons. Four other black players joined the Demons that summer as substitutes, but their play wasn’t really highlighted.

By 1897 and 1898, the Adrian coverage [of the Giants] was almost non-existent at times, so I had to locate their out of town games. And no, a master schedule was never published in any of the four years in newspapers I could ever find. A big hurdle was that the media was white-owned and -operated, and that hindered what was covered and how the players and the team were discussed in print.  

RW: Did you uncover anything unexpected or surprising about the Giants? What were some of your favorite finds along the way?

ML: Well, their famous winning streaks were not accurate. The team business manager, Gus Parsons, discounted games that were not “fairly” umpired and threw out those losses as no-contests. I was surprised at how the interracial ownership group of Len Hoch, Howard and Rolla Taylor, team sponsor J. Wallace Page of the Page Woven Wire Fence Company, and black superstar players [like] the iconic Bud Fowler and teen shortstop Grant “Home Run” Johnson, combined forces to create this all-star team.

It seemed that nearly every day I found something new about the team — the palatial train car, and the two hired men who were employed to cook, porter and barber for the players was interesting. Gus Brooks collapsing in a game in 1895 and dying a few hours later was interesting and tragic.

The fan’s reception from town to town was interesting to see, as to how 1890s America handled race, competition and business during that era. The entire town of Adrian fascinated me, as the city’s No. 1 employer would decide [the Giants’] most public marketing tool would consist of a group of black men playing baseball. I have individual files on each player and became a fan of each of them. I could go on and on.  

RW: The Page Fence Giants are fairly well known within the Negro Leagues community, but do you feel the general public knows much about the landmark ball club? How do you hope this book can help bring the Giants’ story to the larger public?

ML: OK, I am going to disagree with your first premise. I felt that I didn’t find that many people at the Jerry Malloy [conference] who knew much about the team or had even heard of them. Most adults and kids in my classroom know about Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues, but that was about it.

As far as spreading the word about the Giants, the book is a start. But, it took, what, 120 years or so for someone to write about them? So the interest must not have been there, I guess.

I want to add, while in my research stage, an Adrian College film instructor, Michael Neal, contacted me when he heard I was writing a book about the team. He ended up producing a film about Bud Fowler, and I am interviewed throughout the thing. It was just recently put up on Amazon Prime Video, so I hope that helps get the word out about the Giants, too. I hope my book gets Bud Fowler into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but that is probably another story for another time.   

RW: The book does a really good job of placing the Giants’ creation, rise, success and decline within the larger social, political and cultural forces both in Michigan and across the country. How do the Giants fit into the larger tapestry of baseball history and American history?

ML: Thanks for that compliment and observation. My initial goal was to write a baseball book about America in the 1890s and using the Page Fence Giants as the main characters, if that makes any sense, as opposed to a baseball book geared toward baseball nerds and stat heads. I want this book to fill in a void in American history that dealt with the increase in leisure time of workers, the Gilded Age, race relations, sports, etc.

I think the team can be crucial in understanding the forces — and some competing ones at that — as America was trying to become an international power while trying to push progressive values, while coming up against Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson. As a high school history teacher, my role in the classroom is to try and weave a narrative — both good and bad — about the development of our great country.


Mitch Lutzke

In a narrower sense, the baseball community needs to take a closer look at Fowler, George Wilson and Grant Johnson’s overall contributions, and their inclusion in the Hall of Fame should be given another look, in my opinion.

RW: If there’s one major theme, lesson or message you want readers to learn and take away from reading this book, what would it be?

ML: Wow. Great question. I think on the surface, the ability of both white and black people to play, compete, earn money and peacefully exist in a sometimes complex world. But, I also don’t think we need another book on U.S. Grant or Abe Lincoln, really. I would like for historians to look for untold stories, no matter how below-the-surface or initially trivial, or off the beaten trail — or ignored, in the Page Fence Giants instance — to weave a tapestry of our country’s history, warts and all, to the general public.

I also think the role of sports and especially baseball and the huge role it played in de-segregating our country is largely forgotten today. I don’t think it was by accident when Jackie was signed to a pro contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, President Harry Truman signs an order to integrate the U.S. military in 1948. Baseball played a powerful role in America for many decades, and I hope my book will remind people of its role in advancing our society.

For more information about or to purchase Mitch Lutzke’s “The Page Fence Giants: A History of Black Baseball’s Pioneering Champions,” go here. For more info on the author, check out his Web site.

To hear more from Lutzke, check out two podcasts on which he guested: Justin McGuire’s “Baseball by the Book” and Tigers History by Nathan Bierma.

My Buck story: Dennis Graham and research obsession

Here’s another installment of my continuing series about me and Buck Leonard. Actually, this is Part 1 of the installment, so it’s an installment within an installment. We’re getting all “Inception” up in here. You know, meta or something. Anyway, I’ll hopefully have Part 2 next week. You can check out a few of my previous Buck posts here, here and here.

This is my second whack at writing this post, because my first attempt perfectly and sadly exemplified the problems/strengths (which term I use depends how I feel about myself on a given day) one of the themes that I hoped to outline with this post.

Yeah, that’s a bit meta, and just writing it has me dealing with a bout of self-induced confusion. But this post was supposed to be partially about how easy it can be to — I know I over-use this term too much, but thinking of bunnies makes be happy — slip down the rabbit hole when it comes to historical research, and how such a literary venture provides me with both an escape from the occasional challenges of my disorders as well as, more malignantly, a place to hide when I really need to be dealing with serious crap in my life.

To wit: the saga of Dennis Wilson Graham and how the hand of fate maneuvers people of different backgrounds, mindframes and eras into a tapestry that, while intricate and sometimes admittedly tenuous, comes together seamlessly to help someone remember that life ain’t so bad, that we’re all connected, and that pushing forward is the right thing to do.

Dennis Graham also, of course, represents my maddening tendency to get lost in minutae and online databases to the point that I become a babbling, tedious mess of a writer and researcher. Seriously, I can drone aimlessly. You know it. I know it. Here we are.

So, a launching point: while researching Buck Leonard for this blog series, including his connection to his hometown and state, I came across this in the June 29, 1966, issue of the Rocky Mount Telegram, Buck’s hometown paper. It’s an installment of a regular column written by (apparently) another Rocky Mount native who, coincidentally, settled in Pittsburgh, just like Buck did for most of his career. The column, dubbed “Some of This and That” with the byline of “By An Old Reporter,” included this passage:

“As a resident of Pittsburgh and a baseball fan, whose interest in the national outdoor pastime goes back to the days of the Rocky Mount team that boasted such immortals of the diamond as Jim Thorpe [yes, that Thorpe, of “thanks, King” fame, which I’ll touch on briefly below], Sam Price and Doc Anderson, I miss few of the Pirates’ games that are played while I am in the city. At those games I have noted a colored man of pleasant appearance, who seemed to be be in his early seventies, at every game, sitting in the same seat every night, just three rows in front of where I sit. The other evening I got into conversation with him, and found him to be a real student of baseball, as well as a gentleman in every respect. He told me his name is Graham.

“His interest in baseball went back to the days when he was a regular player on the nation’s outstanding Negro team, the famous Homestead Grays. I hastened to tell him of a player on that team who now lives in retirement in his (and my) old home town of Rocky Mount.

“‘Who would that be?’ he asked.

“When I told him it would be and is the Grays’ star first baseman of many years, Buck Leonard, he became quite excited. ‘Good old Buck!’ he exclaimed. ‘A great ball player and just as fine a gentleman. Tell me, how is he? And when you arre [sic] down that way, please team him that I asked about him.’

“And so if I don’t get to see you when I am down that way, Buck, there is the message from one of your fellow players on the Grays.”

From there, the writer launched a narrative about the Grays — the guy was actually pretty well informed for an (assumed) white man born and raised in the South at the time — and how he (the author) had recently been told by none other than long-time Pirates executive Bill Benswanger that Benswanger “planned to break the color line in baseball long before the late Branch Rickey turned the trick by signing Jackie Robinson …”

(The use of the term “turn a trick” obviously has an, ahem, different, somewhat illicit connotation these days, but this was 50-plus years ago, when folks also used terms like “gee whiz,” “golly wow,” “he’s so dreamy” and “that is totally mint!” Well, OK, maybe those dopey terms weren’t actually used much in the 1960s. I cribbed the first two from a stereotypically perplexed Beaver Cleaver, the third one from “Back to the Future,” and the last one from “Super 8” — fantastic movie by JJ Abrams, btw, check it out — which used terminology that I and my friends actually used ourselves circa 1980 when we were 8. So yeah.)

Anyhoo … the Telegram writer went on to described how Benswanger (according to the Bucs owner’s own narration) was going to sign Josh Gibson to a major league contract but was dissuaded by a “tearful plea” from Cum Posey, who allegedly cried that “that loss of Gibson would take away the Gray’s [sic] main gate attraction, and that breaking of the color line would eventually destroy the Grays altogether.”

Whether any of that story is true and any of that stuff actually happened … I have no idea. The sentiment allegedly expressed by Posey — that integration would ruin the Negro Leagues — was absolutely at least a factor (and for some an actual fear and/or vexation) for Negro League teams and owners as integration proceeded. But I can’t really picture Posey — a very proud, self-assured man — actually bawling and begging a major league owner to not do something.

But that’s a topic for discussion. And for what it’s worth, An Old Reporter added:

“Benswanger said he knew how much money, time and effort Posey had put into the Grays, and just didn’t have the heart to strike the first blow in breaking up the team.”

(Well, how noble of you, oh compassionate white man! Thank you for possibly making up a whole bunch of nonsense and for believing that the you, as the benevolent paternalist you were, to believe that you alone held the fate of one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history in your loving, firm hands!)

The column showed that, even in the turbulent ’60s, the white population of a Southern town had nonetheless started to embrace Buck Leonard, a black player, as a hometown hero, which was a (tentative) good sign at the time. I discussed this subject a bit more in this post.)

That face was reinforced a year later, when An Old Reporter, the Steel City resident, returned to the topic in column from the Aug. 6, 1967, Telegram:

“At a twi-night double header at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh the other night, I ran into a friend by the name of Graham, an aging and portly gentleman, who, thirty and forty years ago, was an outfielder with Pittsburgh’s famed Negro team, The Homestead Grays, and he asked that I convey his greetings and good wishes to his old teammate, Buck Leonard, of Rocky Mount, who was the first baseman. And so, Buck, consider that I have carried out his directions. Speaking of his own abilities as a ball player, Graham told me ‘I wasn’t so hot in the field but I was pretty good with the stick.’ He want on to add that Buck was first-class both at bat and in the field.”

(OK, I said I’d explain the Jim Thorpe deal: as many SABR members might know, the legendary all-around athlete and Olympic champ ended up having the medals he won at the 1912 Games in Stockholm stripped from him because he reportedly had lost his “amateur status” by playing for the semipro baseball team, for a meager $2, in Rocky Mount, the Railroaders of the then-Eastern Carolina Association in 1909 and ’10. In 1982, his Olympic medals were restored to him posthumously. Ideally, I would have put this info in a footnote, but honestly, I have no idea how to do that in WordPress.)

Now, by posting those two lengthy passages pretty much verbatim, I’ve revealed one of my writing and researching flaws — I love me some quotes. Pure, unadulterated quote. I adore quotes to the point of irrational obsession. They give me warm fuzzies. Which, after a while, isn’t always a positive thing.

Also by posting these quotes, I’ve piqued your interest just as mine was when I first uncovered these articles — who is this Graham, and how in the heck is he related to Buck Leonard and, more confoundingly, my current blog series?

I shall expound … and, in so doing, attempt to avoid another of my common pitfalls as an historian and writer — that of getting lost in minutae and parsing details waaaaaaaay to obsessively.

And I shall do that by explaining who Dennis Graham was. Normally, of course, I’d end up writing a dissertation-length diatribe about him, one that gets lost in the thicket of specifics and brambles of marginal irrelevance when the researched person in question so that either a) I write too much about a player who, while good, wasn’t a superstar, b) the reader gets hopelessly bored and has his or her eyes glaze over, and/or c) I completely drown what was supposed to be the point in a soup of sidetracks and diversions that, while possibly nifty, really detract from my goal.

That’s what happened with my first draft of this post. I got bogged down in the Dennis Graham story when such, umm, bogged-downedness strayed from my focus.

It’s certainly not that Dennis Graham was a “meh” player who doesn’t deserve his own screed — he was a solid outfielder who deservedly earned praise and community (and media) attention for his abilities and exploits on the field — but this is not the place for that.

Pittsburgh Courier, June 10, 1925

Plus, while amply talented — he reportedly topped .400 for batting average in three different years and swatted over .300 for his career — he certainly was no Gibson, Leonard, Wilson or any other Grays superstars and Hall of Famers.

(As a counterpoint, it’s noteworthy, though, that in 1962 the Courier added another sterling trait to Graham’s legacy, calling him “the fastest going to first base” in Grays history. In addition, come April 1936, Cum Posey asserted that he “considers ‘Bujung’ Wilson and ‘Bujung’ Graham the best hitters of the Grays’ clubs in recent years.” I have no idea “Bujung” means, but it’s probably comparable to “Boojum,” Jud Wilson’s more well known nickname. That’s the only instance I’ve seen of Graham being called that. I also find a reference to Graham being dubbed “Peaches” as well. And now I want peach cobbler. Great. Anyway, I’ve found no explanation for those monikers.)

It could be argued that he was a role player who, for most of his career, ably played that role effectively, even reportedly becoming Cum Posey’s favorite all-time Gray.

Pittsburgh Courier, July 10, 1937. Posey singles out Graham.

But that’s really it. So for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll attempt to be brief when describing his playing career …

Pittsburgh Courier, April 27, 1929

Dennis Graham, as it turns out, was a solid, dependable outfielder for the Homestead club in the mid- to late-1920s, before the club really hit its groove and became a dynastic, Negro Leagues juggernaut. He stopped playing for the club after the 1930 season, but during his tenure with the Grays, he did play a key role in the club’s gradual strengthening ascendancy up the blackball ladder. He was a crucial facet of the Grays’ transition from sandlot and semipro upstarts, to independent, barnstorming stalwarts, to Negro Leagues powerhouse.

Newspaper reports suggested he started with the Grays in 1924 and immediately proved a success; in June 1924, the Courier opined:

“Graham has proven himself one of the most valuable men on the club, and his experience in ‘big time’ has made him a big factor in the consistent winning play of the team.”

And wrote the Courier’s Bill Nunn in May 1925, near the beginning of Graham’s Grays tenure:

“The Grays most consistent hitter. Graham, a former school teacher and college graduate [more on that in a bit], is quiet and unassuming, but when a drive goes into right, or a hit is needed to score a run, Graham is sure to produce.”

Most of the time Graham played in right field quite ably, and at the plate he was known for his power — not Gibsonian or, umm, Suttlesian by any means, but he could still crush a homer and launch a blistering line-drive double on occasion. In 1925, Graham put together a 24-game hitting streak (and possibly longer), and in May 1927 he earned a headline in the Pittsburgh Courier after smacking four hits, including a triple, in a Grays win over a club from Coshocton. In fact, in 1929, Graham clubbed the first Grays home-field hit of the season, a scorching single against the Akron Yellow Cabs. In 1925, the Courier said Graham “has proven the most consistent hitter in the Grays’ line-up.”

A few decades later, this is how later-day Courier sportswriter Earl Johnson summed up Graham’s talents and contributions to the Grays:

“Weighing close to 200 pounds [he] was almost as fast as either Harris or Gray in the outfield. He was the Grays leadoff man and his ability to get on base was equal to that of Eddie Stanky. Graham could bunt, drag bunt or knock the cover off the ball. He batted from the left side of the plate and when his bat met the ball, he was off to first base like a deer.”

Oddly, one of Graham’s weaknesses as a player seems to have a tendency toward maladies. During his first season with the Grays, in 1924, Graham sat out a few games “due to illness,” the Courier reported. On Christmas Eve, 1926, a car wreck caused enough of a gash to require 10 stitches in his leg below the knee, and in May 1928 he reportedly broke a small bone in his right foot during a rough slide into second. That one kept him out for a couple weeks.

But the most serious incident was an auto accident in June 1929 that involved one of the Grays’ traveling team cars. While everyone got some bumps and bruises — the Courier reported that six passengers, including Posey and Graham with a broken wrist — everyone was more or less OK, but the wreck apparently earned Graham a firm place in Homestead lore, as Courier columnist Rollo Wilson related in April 1930:

“The boys told a story about Graham, one which has never reached print, and his reaction to that automobile crash of the team [apparently there was another one following the 1925 wreck], last summer. It was up in the Pennsylvania mountains and it was See Posey’s car which skidded off that hump-backed road near Lewistown. As the men crawled from the wreckage other cars stopped to render assistance. Graham crept painfully out of the sedan and from the ditch, straightened up and made a halting path to the door of a farm house. To the lone woman who was standing there trembling he asked, brokenly, ‘Lady, have you got a mirror?’

“‘Why, yes,’ came her wondering reply, ‘but what do you want with a mirror now of all times?’

“‘Well, I want to see my face and see if it is cut,’ was the surprising comeback of the sturdy Grays outfielder.”

After leaving the Grays early in 1930, Graham played briefly with Tom Browns’ Stars, a semipro team, and even a handful of contests on the roster of the ascendant Pittsburgh Crawfords, therefore playing a role in the gradual rise of the crosstown rivalry between the Grays and Grays that would come to dominate the Pittsburgh sports scene in a few years later.

But  — oh boy, here we go again, with the “blah blah blah” and the going on and on and on, oy vey! —  the story of Graham’s departure from the Grays is one that’s both intriguing and multi-sided. I shall now engage in both indulging my obsessive writing traits — the same freakin’ one I already said in this post that wouldn’t happen in this post — and the chronicling of historical hearsay, scuttlebutt and rumor-mongering …

In its Feb. 22, 1930, issue, the Courier ran a photo of Graham, with a top-head stating “STATUS UNKNOWN,” and a caption asking, “Graham’s name did not appear with those of the men signed for 1930, and whether or not he will be with [the Grays] this season is still a question.” A separate, longer article in the same issue echoed the query.

Then, in the March 22 issue, columnist Bill Nunn issued an update, asserting that Graham had asked for for money and that management had balked and dumped Graham in favor of Oscar Owens in right field. Nunn wrote:

“Graham it appears, is a perennial holdout. This year, though, with the disbanded of the [first Negro National League], Posey found it possible to get plenty of good material. He has refused to pay those real fancy salaries, as have other managers. No use, he contends, to keep high-salaried when you can get others to take their places at reduced prices. Graham assists that his work during the winter would not allow of any reduction in salary. So that’s that, and it looks like the Grays and Graham are at odds for good.”

The April 26 issue of the Courier then confirmed that Graham had hitched on with Brown’s team for the 1930 campaign as part of a crop of talented stars signed by the semipro club, and a week later, Nunn expounded on Graham’s new gig, writing that “Dennis Graham, quiet, gentlemanly, whose powerful bat and speedy action has endeared him to thousands of fans in this vicinity, [will] be with the Browns.”

But there was one more journalistic shot left to be fired. On May 10, 1930, the Courier ran a column that charged the Grays with obfuscation and reticence in regards to Graham, hinting that something fishy or unseemly might be afoot.

But, funny enough, the author of that newspaper report was “Wylie Avenue” columnist John L. Clark, who just happened to double as — wait for it! — the press agent for the Crawfords.

That’s right — the representative for the Grays’ main local antagonist was smack-talkin’ the Grays. Specifically, here’s what the obviously objective and completely unbiased Clark wrote:

“The Homestead Grays 1930 baseball team has been a topic of discussion during the past week. There is a contention in some circles that the aggregation is better than years, while the other group claim [sic] that it is not as colorful.

“The names of Washington and Graham were brought up. These men, it is claimed, had developed a large following through personality and superb playing. And, that since no reason has been given for dropping them, a passive resentment is apt to show in the gate receipts.

“The Column, along with others, would like to know the true and actual reason for dropping these players. We do not agree, however, that the treatment accorded the players in question is different from that of big league operation. Nor will the passive or loquacious resentment materially affect the gate receipts.”

Geez, talk about “passive” … passive-aggressive. That was the equivalent of, “Hey, you didn’t hear it from me, but are those guys hiding stuff? The public — by which I mainly mean me, in this case — wants to know!”

A year later, Graham was in the Craws’ lineup for much of the 1931 season. Funny how stuff like that just happens …

(Really quickly and with no substantive segue … Graham did play for several squads before the Grays, including the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and even with the Baltimore Black Sox briefly in 1925 — he seems to have jumped between the Black Sox and Grays during 1924. Even earlier, he began his career in the mid-1910s with the semipro Havana Red Sox, but more on that later.)

However — and here’s my point, incredibly — there’s no evidence that Graham ever played on the same team as Buck Leonard, including with the Grays. It looks like Graham had left the squad, retired from baseball and settled into a second career as a railroad porter — known colloquially as “Red Caps” — in Pittsburgh before Buck arrived in the Steel City in 1934.

Most likely, that is how Graham and Leonard knew each other — while Leonard was establishing his HOF career with the Grays, “Peaches” was becoming a fixture in the Pittsburgh community.

Dennis and his wife, Sadie, raised a family in the Steel City, shuffling from home to home; the 1930 U.S. Census lists them and their two kids on Francis Street, while the 1940 record places the couple and their four children on Junilla Street. Dennis’ World War II draft card, issued in 1942, pegs him on Burrows Street. Sadie passed away in 1955, leaving Dennis a widower.

Graham worked as a red cap for several decades, and seems to have been quite devoted to the gig and the profession; in 1950, John Clark of the Courier mentioned Graham in comments about the status of the Redcap force in Pittsburgh, including an assertion that the “red cap force has been reduced to the point where the number is not sufficient to two trains arriving at the same time.” Oy vey. (On the positive side, Graham took part in parties, events and “smokers” — barbecues — for the local porter fraternity.)

Dennis, Sadie and their kids became very involved in the Pittsburgh African-American community; Sadie directed a glee club, and Dennis sang in similar singing groups. Sadie also was an active party of several fraternal organizations, while Dennis donated money to the local African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In his post-athletic retirement, though, Graham remained close to the game of baseball as well as the local sports media — again increasingly the likelihood that Graham and Leonard were at the very least casual acquaintances. In 1938, Graham took part in a Grays Old-Timer’s contest that served as a doubleheader opener that concluded with the Grays — with Buck Leonard — squaring off against the Newark Eagles.

In spring 1946, Graham solemnly served as an honorary pallbearer at Cum Posey’s funeral. In 1950, Graham was interviewed by Courier columnist Earl Johnson, who got the interviewee to name the ‘26 Grays as his favorite club on which he played, with the writer quoting Graham thusly:

“The Grays of ’26 was [sic] one of the greatest clubs I ever saw. The infield could bat, run and throw. Williams and Harris were fast and accurate in handling double play balls. Smith, while not as great as Martin Dehigo [sic], Jud Wilson or Judy Johnson was a reliable third baseman. Jap Washington was rugged, had sure hands and could hit the ball a mile. The outfield compared with many outfields in the major leagues.”

By the the twilight of his life, as the 1966 columns in the Rocky Mount Telegram attest, Graham had become a well-liked and respect regular at Pirates games, even attracting the attention of the mainstream Pittsburgh press. For example, in 1963 a Post-Gazette writer penned:

“Dennis Graham, who played for the Homestead Grays (1924-1930), is now a Pennsylvania Railroad redcap. He says his favorite Pirate when the Pittsburgh club was using the iron horse to travel was Pie Traynor. His favorite of all traveling secretaries in the major leagues is Bob Rice.”

Dennis Graham died in Pittsburgh on Dec. 2, 1967, at the age of 71. He was buried Allegheny Cemetery after a funeral service at Central Baptist Church. The Courier reported that several fellow Red Caps attended the services, and the paper described him as “popular and likeable” and “a great professional diamond star.” As a veteran, Graham received a granite military headstone.

Pittsburgh Press, Dec. 4, 1967

The brief Courier article also reported that Graham was born in Proctorville, N.C.

Wait, what? Buck Leonard was a North Carolina native, too. And Rocky Mount is only about 150 miles from Proctorville, which is located in Robeson County. But, hold on, Robeson County is home to the modern-day Native-American Lumbee Tribe … Lumbee Tribe? Wait, I know about them! I went to Robeson County a bunch of years ago for an article in Native Peoples magazine. Small world, man …

John Donaldson: Greatness on film and how to help

Photo courtesy the Donaldson Network

I’m taking a break from my Buck Leonard series to highlight a really neat process taking place about one of the greatest but arguably least-appreciated black baseball legends — pitcher John Donaldson — and how you can help with the effort …

It is, perhaps, an eternal conundrum for Negro Leagues researchers, fans and former players and owners — how to get the average layperson to care about the history of black baseball.

All of us within the Negro Leagues community already know the ins and outs, the large and small, the challenges and successes to be found in the Negro Leagues of yore. We’re familiar with the names, the monikers, the stadiums, the managers and owners, the classic games. Why, because we love it, plain and simple.

And even enthusiasts of baseball history in general are knowledgeable of some of the towering figures and teams — Satchel, Josh, Cool Papa, Cyclone Joe, the Monarchs, the Grays and American Giants.

But then there’s the general public, folks who maybe check the MLB standings once in a while, or who watch a game on TV if they can’t find anything else to check out, or who go to minor league games for something to do on a Friday night. They enjoy baseball occasionally, but it’s only on the their periphery.

These are the ones we need to reach.

And Peter Gorton and the rest of the Donaldson Network just just be onto something in that regard.

John Donaldson was a fireballing, curve-balling African-American pitcher who, over the first few decades of the 20th century, became the first great barnstorming black player. He was Satchel Paige before there was Satchel Paige. The man traversed much of this country — including pretty much all of the Midwest — earning the respect of white and black fans with his immense talent, keen savvy and impeccable character.

What’s more, unlike many early barnstorming stars, Donaldson was caught on film, and a snippet of such footage — 39 seconds, to be precise — was discovered in 2011.

Which, quite naturally, thrilled Gorton, the founder and director of the Donaldson Network, which for nearly 20 years has worked tirelessly and toiled persistently to research every nook and cranny of Donaldson’s life and career.

Not only has the Network uncovered hundreds and hundreds of articles and box scores, but it’s also filled out a picture of the man behind the pitching greatness. Gorton and his peers have been able to draw a portrait of Donaldson’s character and his life, and in so doing have amassed a massive collection of information with which to spread the gospel and Donaldson’s overlooked, underappreciated legend.

The group succeeded in getting Donaldson inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame last year (the player was a Missouri native), and the Network continues to lobby for his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (and many pundits, including this one, believe Donaldson does indeed belong in those hallowed halls).

But once the 39 seconds of film footage of the pitching great emerged, the Donaldson Network struck gold in its efforts. With the film in their (pardon the pun) satchel of documentation, Gorton and his compatriots feel they have something — namely, something dynamic and visual — that can’t help draw in the general public to Donaldson’s story.

“It’s a key part of [their effort],” Pete told me. “We see the film as a stepping stone … We can take it to a different audience.”

As such, the Network has recruited a film production team to produce a documentary about Donaldson called, “39 Seconds,” which, as the title suggests, will center around the discovery of that vintage, rare film footage. (Information about the project can be found below, in the text of a press release sent out by the Donaldson Network recently.)


Courtesy the Donaldson Network

Gorton said he believes the documentary — which is slated to film this summer — could be a key component in the group’s efforts to expanded awareness of Donaldson and his legacy to the general public.

“We’re trying to take an extremely bold step,” he said. “We’ve got to get it out to everybody who’s never seen [Donaldson’s] story before. We’re going to be able to tell the story of John Donaldson and his greatness to more people.”

Part of that mission is to move Donaldson’s tale out from the shadow of more widely known figures for whom Donaldson actually served as a prototype and inspiration.

“We’re trying to push the envelope and tell people that way before Satchel Paige, there was John Donaldson,” Pete said.

The documentary will also show how Gorton and the Donaldson Network has been striving for 17 years to delve into and uncover the pitcher’s stats and his story. Pete said the group has piles of information from box scores and game covers — 403 career wins and more than 5,000 strikeouts, for example — to satiate any baseball nut’s curiosity and queries.

It’s been a long haul, he said.

“We are rock solid in our analysis of the baseball part of it,” he told me. “Let’s also tell a story about that challenge.”

Gorton acknowledges with a laugh that his mission crossed over into “a crazy obsession” a long time ago, and that he’s spent years and years pursuing his passion. He says that, yeah, a few people raise an eyebrow at first glance when they encounter him, but eventually, those doubters understand and support him.

“People say, ‘He’s nuts,’” Gorton said. “It is the ultimate obsession to tell this American story. We’ve worked so hard to figure out that story every day of the last 17 years.”

A still image from the film footage (courtesy the Donaldson Network)

The key is to allow the public relate to Donaldson and the pursuit of history.

“Yes, there’s baseball in [the story,” he said, “but baseball isn’t the biggest story. John Donaldson’s story can resonate with every single person out there.”

You (the general public and my readership, that is) can help bring the film production together. On Feb. 20 (Donaldson’s birthday), the group launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $43,000 to help fund the production of the documentary. Gorton said the raised money will be used to gather interviews with experts that hopefully will be part of the film.

While the $43,000 would only be a portion of the production budget, Gorton said it will nonetheless be a crucial part of the process.

You can link to the Kickstarter page here, and more information about the Donaldson Network and the film production can be found here. Recently published article about Donaldson, the Network and the documentary can be perused here, here and here. For any questions, contact Peter Gorton at pwgortonmb@hotmail.com.

Below is a lightly edited version of press release issued on March 5 by the Donaldson Network giving details of the film:


Tru Ruts Films and 612IM to produce 39 Seconds documentary film

Minneapolis — The film “39 Seconds” will star leading Twin Cities actors, Tru Ruts Films announced today. The film will shoot in in the summer of 2018.

John Donaldson, born in Glasgow, Mo., on Feb. 20, 1891, played ball all the way up to 1949, when he became the first black baseball scout for the Chicago White Sox. Then he disappeared, only to be buried in a unmarked grave in Alsip, Ill.

This documentary film will tell the incredible story of his life as a ball player and consider the hardships a black man at that time had to overcome — and why such a great man and legendary ball player just disappeared from the American story.

The documentary will highlight the career of John Wesley Donaldson, a left-handed pitcher known as “The Greatest Colored Pitcher in the World.” The Donaldson Network’s research techniques have been labeled by the Center for Negro Leagues Baseball Research as “the most extensive research project that has ever been undertaken related to black baseball.”

Donaldson’s legacy required more than 500 researchers from around the world to make it happen. John Donaldson is known to have won 403 games, the most of any segregated pitcher in history. Combined with 5,034 documented strikeouts from over 550 different cities, the numbers are impressive.

The creative team for the film includes director Paul Irmiter; assistant director and casting director Kevin D. West; Tru Ruts executive producers E.G. Bailey and Sha Cage; researcher/story master Peter Gorton; editor Dane Whitehead; and leading actors and creative talent.

ABOUT TRU RUTS FILMS: Tru Ruts operations encompass motion picture production, theatrical and music production, film curation, and acquisition and development of new entertainment products. Its latest film, “New Neighbors,” premiered at Sundance in 2017.

The company’s film areas of interest include narrative shorts and features, Web series, music videos and documentaries. With a 15-year history, current Tru Ruts programs include the “America Now!” international program; Next Wave film series; the Sankofa Festival; and the Brown Cinema Cafe. For more information, see www.truruts.com.

ABOUT 39 SECONDS FILMS: 39 Seconds Films is a partnership between Irmiter 612IM and The Donaldson Network.

Related Links https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1039747489/39-seconds.

I’ll conclude this post with a quote from Donaldson himself, as uncovered by the Donaldson Network effort:

“I am not ashamed of my color. There is no woman whom I love more than my mother. I am light enough so that baseball men told me before I became known that I could be passed off as a Cuban. One prominent baseball man, in fact, offered me a nice sum [$10,000 in 1917] if I would go to Cuba, change my name and let him take me into this country as a Cuban. It would have meant renouncing my family. One of the agreements was that I was never again to visit my mother or to have anything to do with colored people. I refused. I am clean morally and physically. I go to my church and contribute my share. I keep my body and mind clean. And yet when I go out there to play baseball, it is not unusual to hear some fan cry out, ‘Hit the dirty n—–.’ That hurts, for I have no recourse. I am getting paid, I suppose, to take that. But why should fans become personal? If I act the part of a gentleman, am I not entitled to a little respect?”

My Buck story: The book that started it all

The next installment of my project about meeting Buck Leonard. Check out some earlier installments here, here and here.

I don’t remember in which particular bookstore I found “Buck Leonard: The Black Lou Gehrig,” the autobiography of the Homestead Grays great that was co-authored by James A. Riley and released in early 1995. It might have been the Indiana University bookstore, or maybe it was a random Barnes & Noble (which, if it was indeed the source of the volume, is quite possibly closed now, a victim of the terrifying juggernaut known as the Internet).

But where I found the book isn’t as important as when I discovered it. That would be May 1995, shortly after my IU graduation ceremony. And even more significant was the emotional weight and psychological impact it had on me, for it came at a time when, despite receiving a bachelor’s degree — which I somehow managed to complete in the wake of my spiritual crises — I had tumbled into the absolute nadir of my life up to age 22.

In the months leading up to my graduation, I’d suffered two different mental breakdowns that, combined, completely wrecked my life, crippled my self-worth and decimated the hard-earned, carefully-established future I had made for myself in the world of journalism. Gone was my editorship of the Indiana Daily Student. Gone was my impending internship with the Louisville Courier-Journal. And gone — obliterated, really — was any internal sense or belief that life would somehow hold meaning from then on out. Optimism was swept away, hope was crushed into cinders.

However — and it took me years and years to finally wise my thick head up and realize this — what did remain was an incredibly deep and devoted support network of family and friends, people who had somehow weathered the shock of seeing their loved one mired in mental hospitals and receiving cryptic, morbid hints that I was thinking of ending my life. They’d held in their, more bravely than I realized at the time, and they had caught me as I was in free-fall, preventing me from disappearing into the foggy abyss of nothingness.

In addition to that blessing, one other good thing did come from the preceding few months — a deepening interest in baseball history, specifically the Negro Leagues. As I previously detailed here, one of my mentors, the late Dr. William Wiggins, had provided the spark of knowledge in me and then sponsored an independent study honors grant I’d received to study black baseball history during the spring 1995 semester.

While I pursued that research, I became further and further enthralled by the history and characters that had toiled and triumphed behind the curtain of segregation. It was then that I tripped over the name Buck Leonard, via a book about Josh Gibson. I learned that Leonard had been Gehrig to Gibson’s Ruth, that he batted cleanup behind the star-crossed, doomed slugging catcher — and that had come from and retired to Rocky Mount, N.C.

Which just so happened to be where I was headed to rebuild my life and my psychological foundation.

And, what’s this? I read. Buck Leonard just released an autobiography? Like last month? No freakin’ way! I gotta get that shit!

And, by golly, I did.

As I departed Bloomington, Ind., for North Carolina, as I burrowed into the back seat of my dad’s Explorer, that book was my reading material — and my initial, tentative steps back into the real world. In many ways, that book was one of my lifelines back to sanity and hope for the future, whatever it may be.

I was simply spellbound.

I now had an image of Buck Leonard coalescing in my head, not necessarily just a visual portrait of him, but also in terms of his personality, his character, his way of carrying himself. I formed a picture, even just casually through his own words on the written page, of a soft-spoken, reserved, modest man who bore the burdens and injustices of an age gone by — or one that we like to tell ourselves has gone by, not completely, but at least to the point where fairness, respect and understanding (however grudgingly on the part of some) have evolved enough to provide Buck Leonard the accolades, honors and recognition he so deserved after nearly a lifetime.

In addition to providing me with an introduction to Buck — the athlete, the man, the citizen — reading Riley’s book introduced me to the ever expanding, always passionate world of Negro Leagues research and writing.

The next step for me, naturally, was Robert Peterson’s seminal “Only the Ball Was White,” a brilliant revelation of another world that echoed across baseball history like a cannon in 1970. I then learned of all the writers and researchers — many who themselves have reached (although they’d never admit it) legendary status. Riley. Holway. Lester and Clark. Hogan. Heaphy. Dixon. Burgos. Coates.

There’s a whole bunch more, of course, but those are just the ones who have made the biggest impression on me, those who have further influenced my work, my passion, my view of the world around.

But Ground Zero, so to speak, was Jim Riley, Buck Leonard and Rocky Mount.

By this time, I was chomping at the bit to meet Buck Leonard. I had some info, I had an exuberant thirst for knowledge. I had goals, and purpose, and a light at the end of the tunnel.

Naturally, this excitement was tempered by a not-insignificant amount of nervousness. I mean, how to you even approach a Baseball Hall of Famer? How do you introduce yourself to a living embodiment of history? How do you, well, talk to a legend?

You start with the phone book. Actually, I didn’t expect a Hall of Famer to be listed in the white pages.

But, yeah, he was. Walter F. Leonard on Atlantic Avenue. Right there on the page.

I was astounded but also giddy with joy.

Which, of course, transitioned rather rapidly into anxiety as i stared at my parents’ phone. You know, the whole meeting a legend thing.

But I somehow managed to lift the receiver, albeit with trembling hand, and dialed the number. It rang a couple times …

A friend gets on board with Buck

Me and Calvin

For this post/installment of my Buck Leonard series (a couple earlier installments here and here), I wanted to highlight how the subject of the Negro Leagues and their history is so infectious that enthusiasm for it spreads from person to person effortlessly, including on a especially personal level.

The following essay is written by my dear friend Calvin Adkins, whom I met in 1995, right after I graduated from IU and moved to eastern North Carolina. Calvin and I worked together for a couple years in Tarboro, N.C., where, as it happens, Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bill Foster lived for a couple decades after retirement.

When Foster was elected to the Hall in 1996, Calvin and I worked on a story about Foster’s connection to Tarboro for the Daily Southerner newspaper [which has, sadly, subsequently closed after nearly two centuries of publication]. As part of our reporting, we ventured to Rocky Mount to interview Buck Leonard about Foster and a host of other topics.

Below is a narrative penned by Calvin about that incredible day in which I passed on my love of the Negro Leagues to someone who has since become a lifelong, close friend. After his essay, I’ll add a few more notes about Tarboro:

When my good friend Ryan Whirty asked me to pen a column concerning our experiences in 1996 as journalists for The Daily Southerner assigned to write and photograph a feature story of Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard, I immediately said, “That’s been so long ago that I can’t remember anything.”

Since 1996 many birthdays have come and gone and pushed my age to six years over half of 100. At times it seems like I have forgotten more than I can remember. But I do remember shaking the hands of Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard.

I met Ryan when he was working at our rival paper, The Rocky Mount Telegram. Back then it was called the Evening Telegram. It was probably one of Ryan’s first full-time journalist jobs. [Editor’s note: It was indeed my first.]

More than likely, we met while covering the same story. All I can say is we became friends instantly. It wasn’t too long afterward that Ryan left The Telegram to work with us at The Southerner. I never understood why he left a paper with the circulation of about 30,000 to work for a paper with the circulation of about 10,000. I never asked him why, but just a little part of me would like to believe that he changed jobs because of our friendship.

Ryan was younger than I, but he was a gritty, intelligent, aggressive and thorough reporter. His investigative skills were like that of a veteran journalist. I covered cops and courts and was the main photographer for the Southerner. I also covered sports.

It was Ryan’s investigative skills and his love for the Negro League Baseball that led him to Mr. Leonard’s feature. Mr. Leonard lived in Rocky Mount on the Edgecombe County side of town. I heard of him, but the light bulb didn’t come on about his significance in the baseball world until Ryan shared his experience in the Negro League.

To be honest, I felt a little dumbfounded because a red-headed white man from Indiana had to tell me about an African-American Hall of Famer who lived in my home county. Mr. Leonard’s sparkling career should have been first-hand information for me because I am an avid sports fan and I am an African American.

From the time I received the assignment until the day that Ryan and I were going to travel to Mr. Leonard’s house, I was over the fact that Ryan had beaten me to a significant story. But most of all, I was thrilled to be assigned to take pictures of a Hall of Famer.

Since I knew more about the county than Ryan, he asked me to drive. During the trip, I can’t recall talking too much about Mr. Leonard as much as thinking about what type of pictures were best suited for Ryan’s featured story. We were shooting film back then. I had already placed a roll in my camera along with a fresh set of batteries for my flash. I was a little nervous but, if I had any solace, it was knowing that my job was going to be easier than Ryan’s.

When we arrived at Mr. Leonard’s house, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I recalled a very polite elderly lady opening the door. She greeted us with a pleasant, articulate Yankee accent with a small touch of a Southern flavor. She was expecting us and after a short greeting, she led us to Mr. Leonard who was sitting in his trophy room.

I can’t remember what he was wearing or whether or not he wore glasses. What I do remember is looking around in awe of the memorabilia that he collected. There were pictures, posters, bats and balls, and jerseys. It was the coolest little museum that I had ever seen. Other than on a baseball field, I couldn’t have asked for a better place to take pictures of Mr. Leonard.

During the formal introduction, I looked Mr. Leonard in his eyes and shook his hand. The handshake was proof that the then-89-year-old National Baseball Hall of Famer wasn’t feeble, but father time had taken some of the strength from his hands. Although the greeting formality lasted just a few seconds, it was something majestic about that handshake that I just didn’t understand.

In an effort to allow Mr. Leonard to get comfortable with Ryan and I invading his space, I waited a few minutes before I began taking pictures. Ryan did a great job of introducing us and easing into the interview. It wasn’t long before Mr. Leonard was talking to us like we were one of his teammates. I can’t remember the exact conversations, but I do remember that Mr. Leonard’s memory was quite phenomenal.

Ryan’s interview had Mr. Leonard’s undivided attention, which made my job that much easier. I took wide angles shots of Mr. Leonard showcasing his memorabilia in the background and also close-ups that detailed the personality of an aging Negro League player. While looking through my viewfinder, I realized that this was a special moment.

Mr. Leonard was a Negro League superstar who was good enough to have played in the Major Leagues but didn’t because of the racial divide in America. But he persevered. Because of his dominance, he was called the Black Lou Gehrig. In fact, Negro League star Monte Irvin said that if Leonard had been allowed in the Major Leagues, baseball fans “might have called Lou Gehrig the white Buck Leonard.”  

Ryan’s story was published in The Daily Southerner and I remember getting rave reviews from the community. The editor chose a close-up shot as the feature photo and Ryan’s word capture the essence of Mr. Leonard’s entire life. Ryan sent the story to the Associated Press, and they picked it up for other newspapers to use across America.

Approximately one year later (Nov. 27, 1997), Mr. Leonard passed away. On that day I remember reflecting back to shaking the hand of a Negro League Baseball player.


That was Calvin’s experience, and I remain honored and delighted that he and I were able to share such a special moment through a meeting with a baseball legend.

I just wanted to add a few more thoughts to fill in some background on this tale. First off, a couple years ago I wrote a story about Bill Foster’s connection to Tarboro and the neighboring town of Princeville for the Raleigh News & Observer; you can read the piece here.

Second, Tarboro, as it turns out, has another intimate connection to the Negro Leagues, in the person of Hubert “Bert” Simmons, a pitcher/utility player for North Carolina A&T in Greensboro N.C., as well as local Negro minor league teams like the Raleigh Tigers (where he was managed by the aforementioned Foster), Greensboro Red Wings and Asheville Blues. His career culminated with in 1950, when he played for the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro American League.

But Simmons was born in Tarboro in 1924 and spent his youth there. Although he settled in Baltimore following his hardball career, he occasionally returned to Tarboro for reunions and such. In several post-career interviews, Simmons discussed his childhood in Tarboro, including being barred from playing organized baseball at the town’s stadiums because of segregation, as well as the fact that his school, Pattillo High School, didn’t even have a varsity baseball team (it’s now a middle school).

Simmons was able to overcome those handicaps, however, and went on to shine at NC A&T before moving on to his pro career. At A&T Simmons guided the Aggies to multiple Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association crowns in the 1940s by becoming the ace of the A&T staff as well as the consensus best hurler in the CIAA. He eventually earned his bachelor’s from the school and was elected to the Aggie Hall of Fame in 1978. (One of his Aggie teammates was Tom Alston, the first black player for the St. Louis Cardinals. Another product of A&T around that time was James Robinson.)

While in retirement in Baltimore, Simmons became a high-profile community leader and baseball coach at the Little League, high school, college and American Legion levels. His crowning achievement was helping to establish what is now the Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro League Baseball in the library at Owings Mills, Md. He passed away in 2009.

But as I stated, Bert occasionally returned to Tarboro, including Pattillo High School reunions, which is where my buddy Calvin met him in 2002. Calvin, with his experiences visiting Buck Leonard with me in 1996 in his pocket, interviewed, photographed and became buds with Simmons, who signed a baseball card for Calvin.

This past November, when I voyaged to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, I spent a day in Tarboro and Princeville cruising around with Calvin, and he gave me the card signed by Bert Simmons. I was extremely touched by the gift, so many thanks to Calvin — for the card, for writing this article, for all the barbecue lunches, for coming with me to meet Buck, and for being one of the best friends a guy could ever have.