New Orleans Negro Leaguer feted by friends and fans

The Xavier University of Louisiana visited former Negro Leaguer Gerald Sazon for his birthday recently. (Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.)

Editor’s note: This post is an expansion of an article I previously wrote for The Louisiana Weekly. The original version ran in the newspaper’s May 16, 2022 edition.

The sounds of baseball are part of what makes America’s pastime so unique, and for those who love the game, the sounds become indelibly seared into one’s memories.

The crack of the bat on a home run. The roar of the crowd when a team scores in the bottom of the ninth inning. The guy walking up and down and through the stands, hawking hot dogs and popcorn and beer.

For Gerald Sazon of New Orleans, the auditory stimulus came when his fastball’s arrival at home plate.

“I used to love to hear that sound of the ball hitting the mitt – pow!” Sazon said.

And Sazon’s fastball, he’s proud to say, had enough zip to it to vex hitters and battery mates alike.

“I used to throw it so hard, you wouldn’t see it until it hit the catcher’s mitt,” Sazon said. “Catchers had to put extra rubber in their mitts” to protect their hands.

Although Sazon celebrated his 86th birthday recently, such memories linger clearly in his mind for the man who played in the segregated Negro Leagues in the 1940s and ’50s. As a member of local pro outfits like the New Orleans Black Pelicans and the New Orleans Creoles, as well as the national touring team, the famed Indianapolis Clowns, who in the 1950s launched the careers of players who made the jump from Black baseball to the Majors, particularly the legendary Henry Aaron.

On April 28, Sazon was feted with a 86th birthday party at St. Margaret’s at Mercy nursing home, where the ex-pitcher now lives in his golden years. Dozens of fellow residents joined St. Margaret’s staff, members of Sazon’s family, other loved ones and other baseball enthusiasts attended the party.

The bash included short talks by people who know Sazon, as well as a group rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Nursing home staff also presented Sazon with a baseball signed by the members of the Tulane University varsity team.

Prior to the event, the members of the Xavier University baseball team personally visited the ex-Negro Leaguer and gave Sazon a signed ball, bat and shirt, a gesture that carried extra significance because of Xavier’s status as an HBCU

“It was overwhelming,” Sazon later said of the party and the support he received. “They didn’t tell me that all those people would come.”

Amy Sprout, central intake coordinator for St. Margaret’s, helped organize the bash, the plans for which got rolling because the St. Margaret’s staff knew how important Sazon’s trips to Birmingham for a reunion with his fellow players at the Negro Southern League Museum

However, such a trip wasn’t possible this year, Sprout said, so “our team thought it would be a great idea to instead bring the celebration to him.” She added that the party exceeded everyone’s expectation, as was the overwhelmingly positive response from the community.

Gerald Sazon with friends and neighbors at his party. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.

Sprout said Sazon has become a vital part of the St. Margaret’s community, making throwing a celebration in his honor easy.

“Mr. Sazon has kind of been a ‘silent star’ within our community for the past couple of years,” she said. “A few of our staff members were aware that he had a history as a baseball player, but it was not until recently that the extent of his impact in the baseball world was really brought to light.”

Sprout said every elderly resident of the home has a fascinating, intricate life story to tell, and for Sazon, that story is the national pastime.

“We often hear stories about different trailblazers throughout history on TV and in newspapers, but to have one of these trailblazers living in our home is truly an honor,” she said. “We are grateful to be in a position to help share his story and create connections with today’s generations, particularly today’s athletes, who are directly benefiting from the efforts of Mr. Sazon and his likes.“

Gerald Sazon was born in 1936 to Irby and Louise Sazon and lived on Law Street — located in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a historically African-American community that has struggled economically and development-wise for decades, especially following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — with his family. His life in baseball began when he joined an age 12-14 youth league in New Orleans.

He also took in as many pro games as he could at Pelican Stadium, where he’d enjoy “knothole” nights. You went around the fence, and you had a hole you could look through.”

Although he attended a private school that had no formal baseball team – “Education was the thing for my parents,” he said – the promise of the diamonds had him itching to get through the school year.

“I couldn’t wait ‘til summer,” he said.

His formative, teenage years playing baseball were an experience that sharpened his skills and whetted his appetite for a life of baseball, and, he said, “by the time I got to 16, I was well groomed.”

His developing talents as a twirler attracted the attention of some of the established local pro players – more on that in a little bit – and soon he was snatched up to the big time, or at least as big as it got in New Orleans, in Louisiana and in the Deep South.

As a young man, Sazon, as did his father Irby, toiled as a longshoreman along the Mississippi River, keeping him in shape while restricting his diamond dreams to the weekends. During his playing career, some of his teammates and peers traveled to Cuba for winter ball, but Sazon was kept home by his parents, who felt their son was too young for adventures in the far away Caribbean. 

When starring on the mound, Sazon complemented his sizzling fastball with a sneaky curveball – “and it wasn’t no little curve,” he said. The sharp veering of the pitch caused some batters to duck in fear of getting beaned, and prompted other hitters to step into the batter’s box wearing football helmets.

“I’d aim it at you, but when it crossed the plate, it would cut way down,” he said. “They [the batters] would freeze, and the ball would just drop in there for a strike.

Sazon said his teammates just had to produce a run or two on offense, and he could take it from there and get the win. The key for a good pitcher is control, he said; “once you get zeroed and on where you want it,” it’s all over for an opponent.

“I didn’t think nothin’ of it,” he said. “I just wanted you to hit the ball and get me a run or two,” he said.

Like countless other segregation-era Black ballplayers, Sazon and his teammates endured grueling road trips, squeezed onto buses, rolling by night through towns in the Deep South that employed “sundown” rules – formal or informal rules order people of color off the streets and in their homes as the sun set – and other draconian measures to enforce white supremacy.

“They were rough,” Sazon said of the treks. “You’d go to a little town, and there wouldn’t be any colored boarding houses, so you’d have to sleep on the bus. We’d open up the sides so we could sleep.”

He added, “We’d sleep on the bus all night, then we’d get out there on the field, and we’d be stiff as a board.” And even if a town did have accommodations for African-American visitors, such as a boarding house or “colored” motel, the players would have to squeeze three or more players in each room.

Sazon recalled one particular Mississippi town where the white sheriff, irate that Sazon’s club had beaten the local town team, met them at a bridge out of town to warn them to walk across the span and never come back.

Sazon being interviewed by a local journalist. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout

(Of course, often the games themselves presented perilous hazards, such as opponents sharpening the spikes on their cleats to slash up an intrepid infielder trying to tag someone out.)

But despite the arduous, exhausting realities of the road, there were many highlights and shining moments that made the labors of the job more than worth it.

What became “the proudest game I ever pitched” took place in the city of New Roads, La., a burg in Pointe Coupee Parish, located 110 miles northwest of New Orleans, when he recorded a shutout. Sazon lived for a period in New Roads.

Other highlights included shutting down a Navy team, taking part in an integrated game at Pelican Stadium, and playing a contest in Yankee Stadium.

“You talk about scary,” he said of competing at the House That Ruth Built. “Just to walk in there and walk around was frightening.”

Sazon’s baseball career in the South was interrupted in the early 1950s when he was drafted into the Army, where he pitched for the troops as part of his service assignment and advanced to the rank of corporal.

After leaving the service, Sazon temporarily settled in the Washington, D.C., area, where he caught on with teams in the southern Maryland League. That effectively ended his time as a star in the Southern Negro Leagues.

Unfortunately, the number of African-American players of Sazon’s generation continues to dwindle, much like the fortunes of Negro League baseball following Jackie Robinson’s barrier-shattering debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Over the past few years, several prominent New Orleans Negro Leaguers have passed away; in 2019, former Black Pelican Paul Lewis Jr. died at the age of 92, and before that the city in 2015 said farewell to 94-year-old Herb Simpson, who played on several local teams before stints with national-level Negro Leagues teams and in the integrated Minor Leagues.

Because of this inevitable, bittersweet march of time, those who played the game and those acolytes who study the Negro Leagues and work to preserve and enrich the legacy segregation-era Black players and managers are constantly working to cherish the few remaining survivors and burnish their memories.

“We have come to a point in our history where many players from the ‘heyday’ of the Negro Leagues are gone, and now we are seeing those who played near the end of the Negro Leagues leave us as well,” said Dr. Ray Doswell, vice president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “Seeing these men ‘going home,’ in many spiritual traditions, is a time to rejoice, but bittersweet for those of us racing to preserve these stories and histories.”

Doswell added that Sazon remains a bright light in the legacy of the Negro Leagues.

“I am happy to know Mr. Sazon can celebrate one more year with folks recognizing his unique place in history,” he said. “It is also good to know he still loves baseball.”

Many of those New Orleans legends who have passed were friends, teammates and opponents of Sazon.

Simpson used to playfully call Sazon “Junior” because of the latter’s relative youth. In one anecdote, Sazon recalled running into Herb at the VA hospital, much to each of their delight and surprise.

“Herb looked up and saw me and said,’ Is that you, Junior?’” Sazon said.

Herb Simpson, one of Sazon’s friends and fellow New Orleans Negro Leaguer. Photo by Ryan Whirty.

Sazon also knew well the slugging Bissant brothers – Bob and John, who played with the great Chicago American Giants and garnered the nickname, “Champ.”

“Both of them could hit that ball,” Sazon said of the Bissants.

While he was with the New Orleans Creoles – who at the time were owned and run by the great local hotelier, sports promoter and baseball entrepreneur Allen Page – Sazon played with the trailblazing second baseman Toni Stone, the first woman to play professional baseball. Stone became a sensation, first in New Orleans, then with the Indianapolis Clowns.

“She was a star at second base,” Sazon said.

Sazon also rubbed elbows and took the field with shortstop Billy Horne, another Crescent City native. Horne spent several years with the Chicago American Giants, including one season with John Bissant who also played with the American Giants off and on through the late 1930s and early ’40s. A few other New Orleans lads donned spikes to play with Chicago during this period, including outfielder Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport (who also garnered another nickname in his hometown, “Bearman”) and catcher Ziggy Marcell, son of the irascible third baseman Oliver Marcell. The CAGs of this time also had the “Rocking Chair Catcher,” Pepper Bassett, a Baton Rouge native.

Arguably the most enigmatic, colorful figure and teammate recalled by Sazon was pitcher Robert “Black Diamond” Pipkins, a native of Mississippi who spent much of his adult life based in New Orleans, including stints with several southeast Louisiana Black teams.

Pipkins’ outsized legend has reached near mythic proportions, his flamboyance and brashness making him a must see attraction whenever he took the mound. Sazon remembered what was perhaps the Diamond’s most eccentric trait – gold teeth that would glint in the sun and vex opposing batters with the shine.

“He had all that gold in his mouth,” Sazon said with a wide smile. “He would get up there [on the mound] with the sun shining and flash those teeth. Batters would complain to the ump.”

In fact, it was Pipkins who persuaded a 16-year-old Sazon to pursue his baseball dreams. Sazon said Pipkins at one point lived on the same block as him and asked permission from Sazon’s parents to set out on the road as a professional ballplayer.

Guiding many of these players in their careers, especially in New Orleans, was the Skipper, Wesley Barrow, the crusty, gruff, endlessly experienced manager who piloted many teams, including the Creoles, with unmatched passion and skill.

Wesley Barrow Stadium. Photo by Ryan Whirty.

Sazon said Barrow – after whom the historic stadium in Pontchartrain Park, New Orleans’ first planned neighborhood for middle-class African Americans, is now named – was a strict taskmaster who shaped the career, life and character of countless young Black men and women.

“He was something else,” Sazon said of Barrow, “and he’d cuss you out, too. Wesley was a card.”

Sazon’s baseball career, as do the careers of most other men and women who swing the wood and flash the leather, eventually came to an end. As Sazon reached early middle age and was still living in the DC area after playing in the Mid-Atlantic states, he realized his team in the athletic spotlight was winding down. In addition, he missed his hometown, and his mother passed away.

“I’d been away so long,” he said. “I’d gotten sort of homesick.”

So, after more than 20 years in the Maryland-DC area, Sazon decided to come home to the Crescent City in the early 1970s. But he wasn’t going home a stranger; the former teammates with whom he kept in touch informed him that his friends and colleagues at him still remembered from his sprightlier days on the ballfields of New Orleans.

“They’d say, ‘Don’t you know they still talk about you?’,” Sazon said.

As a result of his lingering renown in his hometown, Sazon still played on a semipro basis once a month or so while he paid the bills by working at a power plant. At one point he’d saved up enough money to purchase a limousine and launched his own chauffeuring service. In his later years, Sazon worked as an administrator in a private school in Westwego, a suburb of New Orleans across the Mississippi River.

But he still remained active and visible among the graying men of the old New Orleans Negro Leagues. He played in a few reunion games put on by the local Old Timer’s Baseball Club, which was founded in 1959 by Walter Wright, a native New Orleanian and a star pitcher in 1930s and ’40s Louisiana Negro Leagues.

Gerald Sazon. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.

For many years the Old Timers threw an annual banquet and awards dinner, followed by a game at Pontchartrain Park (now Wesley Barrow Stadium) that was preceded by a Little League all-star game. The Old Timer’s Club and its annual celebrations became so popular that they regularly attracted living legends, including National Baseball Hall of Famers Bill Foster and the one and only Satchel Paige

Sazon also attended several of the Negro League reunions that took place annually in Birmingham, Ala. These reunions, most of them organized by Dr. Layton Revel, a passionate Negro Leagues historian and founder of the new Negro Southern League Museum in Birmingham, often included a day at Rickwood Field, the oldest functioning baseball stadium in the country. The stadium was the site of the annual Rickwood Classic, an official Double-A game hosted by the Birmingham Barons.

“I think about going to Birmingham,” Sazon said. “All the fellows would meet, and we’d be up all night talking.”

During our conversation, Sazon also mentioned the names of several star Black players would excelled in the Majors following integration, singling out one-time Negro Leaguer Dan Bankhead, one of the five ballplaying Bankhead brothers who became the first African-American pitcher in the Majors while slinging for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947-51; ex-Baltimore Elite Giant Joe Black, a key part of the Dodgers starting rotation in the 1950s who went on to a successful career in the corporate world; and Dominican Juan Marichal, who was a 10-time All Star for while with the San Francisco Giants from 1960-73 who eventually made it into Cooperstown.

These days, Sazon stays close to the game by following the various college teams in New Orleans, especially Tulane. He also catches major league games on TV, and like many “old timers,” he’s flabbergasted by the massive salaries, but, he adds, “the talent is there.”

He also finds the domination these days of pitch count limits for pitchers, which he feels are a little ridiculous, especially if a pitcher is doing well on the mound.

“As long as they don’t start hitting him,” he said, “they should just leave him out there.”

Plus he has the memories of his own career and experiences. As one of a rapidly dwindling number of living Negro Leaguers, making the stories he unspools and the wisdom he dispenses more vital than ever in preserving the histories and legacies of Black baseball.

And on that note, one more sound, one more story that remains crystal clear in his memory …

When his team traveled to Alabama to play the Prichard Athletics, Sazon and his mates faced Tommie Aaron, the younger brother of home run king Henry.

Tommie had similar power at bat as his brother, and during this particular game, Tommie crushed a long drive that smacked against the outfield wall, which was made of galvanized aluminum. The impact produced a thunderous “Bang!”

Sazon’s birthday cake. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.

Not a bad memory to have, all these years – and fastballs – later. As he sits outside in the nursing home’s back courtyard recently, a gentle breeze swaying the landscaped bushes and trees and a bright blue sky overhead, Sazon – who began playing professionally at the age of 16 – recounts that and other tales that made his life exhilarating, rewarding and satisfying.

“I think about [his career] all time,” he said.

Despite all the challenges and rigors he and his teammates faced almost daily – racist police in small Southern towns, having to scrape up food whenever they could, sleeping in flea bag hotels or on the bus all night as they plunged toward their next game – Sazon recalls it as the thrill of his life.

“Hell,” he said with a sly grin, “I was young. That was all fun to me.”

The Malloy Conference returns in a big way

Clinton “Tiny” Forge of the Detroit Stars. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)

It had been five years since SABR held its last in-person Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference. Way back then, in 2017 in Harrisburg, we never could have anticipated all the dramatic developments that lay ahead. Our community was brought together in 2019 in Detroit, where a committed group of organizers put together a fantastic conference for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Detroit Stars.

But despite how educational and rewarding the Detroit gathering had been, we in the Negro Leagues fandom missed the annual Malloy conference, the first of which was held in 1998 in Harrisburg. The Malloy conference was born from the brilliance and hard work of Negro Leagues Committee co-founders Dick Clark and Larry Lester, and from those humble beginnings, the Malloy — and correspondingly, SABR’s Negro Leagues Research Committee itself — became institutions that attracted the attention and respect of baseball historians, scholars and fans, many of whom, me included, would attend the Malloy conferences, some on a regular basis.

But Dick’s untimely, tragic passing disrupted the flow of the committee, then the COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on in-person gatherings for two solid years. So when we finally, at long last, came back together under the Malloy banner June 2-4 in Birmingham, it was a homecoming and in many ways a catharsis for all the challenges and barriers that hindered us.

Earlier this month in Birmingham, Larry said it best: “We are a family.”

And Birmingham was a reunion for the ages, and hopefully the start of many more. In this post, I won’t delve too much in depth about the conference proceedings, and I’ll save giving each presentation, discussion and other conference events in more detail in a week or two.

For now, I’ll tell the story of the 2022 Jerry Malloy Conference in photos. Many thanks to Sherman Jenkins and Signe Knutson for contribition pictures to this endeavor, and if anyone else has some photos they’d like to share, definitely let me know at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

Scenes from the start of Friday’s conference proceedings.

Donald Spivey, James Brunson and Negro Leagues Committee Co-Chair Larry Lester. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Lamar Smith, board member of the SABR Rickwood Field Chapter in Birmingham, welcomes attendees to the conference. At the closing banquet, Smith received the prestigious Fay Vincent Most Valuable Partner Award, which is named after former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who has a steadfast, influential advocate for the Negro Leagues and their legacy. “I am overwhelmed by your knowledge, passion and love for the players, and for your commitment to the research,” Smith told attendees. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Larry Lester and Dr. Kimberly White-Glenn, a professor at Alabama A&M, who made a presented comparing and contrasting Toni Stone and Effa Manley, two women who blazed trails in the Negro Leagues. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Author Rich Bogovich presented a paper about overlooked Negro Leaguers from rural Bullock County, Ala. Rich’s latest book is a biography of 19th-century great and National Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Grant. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Larry Lester and Alabama State Sen. Sheila Tyson, who presented a proclamation by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey in honor of the Malloy Conference. Coleman-Madison also donated a state flag of Alabama that had flown over the State Capitol. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Larry Lester with statistical guru Todd Peterson, whose presentation ranked the top 102 Negro League players of all-time through rigorous statistical analysis. Peterson’s working in quantifying Negro League stats played a large role in the Negro Leagues finally receiving major league status in 2020. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Conference attendees received two sweet new books. (Photos by Ryan Whirty.)

The first stop on the bus tour of Birmingham landmarks was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The following photos are of artifacts and installations at the Institute. All photos by Ryan Whirty.

Skip Nipper checks out a bus display.

Across the street from the BCRI sits the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of a KKK bombing that murder four little girls in 1963. Photos by Ryan Whirty.

The next stop on the bus tour was the Negro Southern League Museum. Photos by Ryan Whirty.

“This is something unique that we have that no one else has,” said State Sen. Sheila Tyson of the museum. Added Alicia Johnson-Williams, who works in Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office as director of the NLSM: ““We don’t say that it’s [the city’s] museum. We say it’s your museum. It’s all of our museum’s, because we are celebrating that history together.”
Dr. Layton Revel, the founder and primary memorabilia benefactor of the museum, who attended the conference despite recent heart surgery, told me: “We’re proud of it. It’s nice to see your life’s work come to life”

The last stop on the tour was historic Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball stadium in America still in active use. Rickwood was built in 1910 and served as homefield for the Birmingham Black Barons, among other teams.

Conference attendee Wayne Davis takes in the stadium’s beauty. (Photo by Signe Knutson.)
Photo by Signe Knutson.
Photo by Signe Knutson.
Leslie Heaphy wings a ball on the field. (Photo by Signe Knutson.)
Phil Ross demonstrates his patented two-ball pitching motion. (Photo by Signe Knutson.)
Photo by Ryan Whirty.
Photo by Ryan Whirty.
Photo by Ryan Whirty.
Photo by Ryan Whirty.
Sherman Jenkins and Phil Dixon. (Photo courtesy Sherman Jenkins.)
Fred Saffold, founder of the True Black History Museum. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Photo by Sherman Jenkins.
Photo by Sherman Jenkins.
Several representatives of the media attended the conference-goers visit to the stadium. (Photo courtesy Sherman Jenkins.)

The proceedings during the day Saturday included more presentations, pointed discussions and the trivia contest.

Phil Dixon, left, placed third in the trivia contest. Contest administrator and three-time winner Ted Knorr is at right. A total of 15 contestants vied for the 2022 crown. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
John Graf, here with Ted Knorr, placed second in the trivia contest. He won the title in 2016. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Todd Peterson took the trivia crown in 2022. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
The panel discussion titled, “Black Ball and the Hall: Justice in Cooperstown?” featured a lively, often passionate conversation about the Hall of Fame’s controversial, ever-evolving policiy regarding the induction of segregation-era Black players. Discussion participants included, from left: Gary Gillette, Leslie Heaphy, moderator Ted Knorr and Steven Greenes. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)

The 22nd annual Jerry Malloy Conference concluded with a banquet and awards ceremony.

Rodney Page, son of legenday New Orleans team owner, sports promoter and businessman Allen Page, was recognized at the banquet. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Dr. Jeremy Krock, founder of the nationally renowned Negro League Baseball Marker Project, updated attendees about the Project’s latest activity, which includes the placement of markers on 12 previously barren graves of Black ball greats since 2017. Efforts on the horizon include stones for Newt Allen, Elias “Country” Brown and, hopefully, Dick Lundy and Chino Smith. If a marker can be successfully placed at Allen’s grave, it would mark the 50 successful gravestone projects. Said Krock: “Some graves took a long time, but it was worth it.” (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Father David Polich gave the invocation for the ceremony. It was his first Malloy conference. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Author and trumpeter Phil Dixon played a soulful version of the traditional hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Banquet-goers listen as SABR Executive Director Scott Bush, far center, addresses the dinner. Bush’s words were eloquent and at times emotional. Bush said SABR’s Negro Leagues was among the first such research groups organized within SABR, having been created in 1971. “Since that time,” Bush said, “the committee has been a leader in everything it does, not just within SABR but across the baseball world.” (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Three former Negro Leagues players were in attendance and were recognized by Larry Lester on behalf of the committee. Here is Detroit Stars catcher Clinton “Tiny” Forge. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Birmingham Black Barons pitcher, practicing minister and Marine veteran Rev. Bill Greason, 97 years young. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Birmingham Black Barons second baseman Tony Lloyd. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Lamar Smith accepts the Robert Peterson Award. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)

All in all, it was a fantastic conference, especially because, in addition to the former players, several descendants of Black ball greats attended. One was Harriet Hamilton, the daughter of Henry Kimbro, and Doug Foster, the great nephew of Rube Foster and grandson of Bill Foster. Doug said he was blown away by the Malloy conference.

“It’s been a great experience for me,” Doug said. “I’ve always felt like Rube Foster is someone who’s known in baseball circles, but beyond that not too many people know about him. [The conference) is just a credit to his legend and how important he was to American history.”

I’ll close this post (hopefully another article will be forthcoming) with a comment from another descendant of Negro Leagues, Rodney Page, son of New Orleans team owner and sports promoter Allen. When introduced at the banquet, Rodney had eloquent, heartfelt words about the Malloy conference and its “family.”

“All of us are here out of a sense of justice,” he said. “It’s so important that the truth of history be spoken. There is a truth and history that has to be cherished and preserved and passed on. Each of us has a calling, a calling that has to do with justice and truth.”

Preach it, Brother.

Satch, the president and looking to the future

President Biden with the Satchel Paige card on his desk.

The last couple years have been dizzying ones when it comes to the building and underscoring the legacy and influence of the Negro Leagues.

From the wildly popular “tip of the hat” celebrations in 2020 that marked the 100th anniversary of the formation of the first Negro National League, to the elevating of the 1920-1948 Negro Leagues to the level of major league and the resulting and continuing process of integrating of Negro Leagues stats into the baseball record books, Black baseball has entered the mainstream public consciousness like never before.

And late last year, the 46th president of the United States further burnished the profile of Black ball when he lauded the achievements of the greatest Negro Leaguer of all.

Well, sort of.

Living up to his (somewhat debatable) reputation as a “gaffe machine,” Joe Biden stumbled over his attempt, during a Veterans Day address at Arlington National Cemetery, to cite Satchel Paige as an example of how age is often relative and rests in the eye of the beholder.

Biden – whose Satchel Paige fandom is lifelong, well known and exemplified by the presence of Paige’s 1953 Topps card on his desk in the Oval Office – acknowledged the presence during the speech of 96-year-old Donald Blinken, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary and father of current U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Biden, a stutterer who has successfully overcome the disability for many years, ended up garbling his words badly enough for some pundits to claim the president harbored latent bigotry and generating the hashtag #RacistBiden.

Here’s what Biden actually said:

“And I just want to tell you, I know you’re a little younger than I am, but you know I’ve adopted the attitude of the great Negro — at the time, pitcher in the Negro Leagues — went on to become a great pitcher in the pros — in Major League Baseball after Jackie Robinson. His name was Satchel Paige. 

“And Satchel Paige, on his 47th birthday, pitched a win against Chicago. And all the press went in and said, ‘Satch, it’s amazing — 47 years old. No one’s ever, ever pitched a win at age 47. How do you feel about being 47?’ He said, ‘Boys, that’s not how I look at it.’ They said, ‘How do you look at it, Satch?’ He said, ‘I look at it this way: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’

“I’m 50 years old and the ambassador is 47.”

This certainly wasn’t the first time Biden as president referred to Paige as an example of the progress America has made as a society and a nation. When Biden and others hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers in July 2021 following the team’s 2020 World Series championship. Said Biden:

“Now I’m going to mention one ballplayer that the Vice President heard me mentioned [sic] before, that I – even I never – and I – even I’m not old enough to have watched him play – but Satchel Paige. 

“And Satchel Paige, as any pitcher out here can tell you – the older you get, the harder to keep that arm going. Right? Well, he didn’t get to the majors until he was 45 years old. On his 47th birthday – I know you all know this – he pitched a win against Chicago. And all the press went into his room, and – in the locker room, and said, ‘Satch, Satch, it’s amazing: 47 years old and you pitched a win. How do you feel about being 47, Satch?’ He said, ‘Boys, that’s not how I look at age.’ I had the staff look this up. This is what he did say: ‘That’s not how I look at age.’ ‘Then how do you look at it, Satch?’ ‘I look at [it] this way’– he said, ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’ I am 51 years old. You guys are 19.

 “Anyway, I think you real- – I know you don’t underestimate it anymore. You saw what happened in other professional leagues and the way you and all the leagues responded to the crisis we faced. So thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

These comments once again display the way Biden, perhaps partially resulting from his stutter, continually and forehead-slappingly makes word salad of his public comments. 

The president also made similar comments that referenced the same Paige quote when Biden met with Pope Francis in October 2021. 

I’m not going to engage in extensive political commentary or wax poetic about neither supposed “optics” of Biden’s flubs, nor the predictable responses by the president’s critics. I’ll also refrain from examining the impact of stuttering on Biden’s public image and how the disability (which I myself have had since I was 3) can affect interpersonal communication in society.

And I won’t delve into the historical accuracy and verite of the anecdotes itself. Whether the tale is at least partially apocryphal – an adjective that can be used to describe many of Satch’s famous quotes – can also be debated by Negro League scholars, writers and fans.

Presidents (from left) Obama, Bush Jr. and Clinton tip their caps to the Negro Leagues.

However, I will say that once you read Biden’s full comments and place them in the context of both history and Biden’s Negro Leagues fandom, it’s obvious that he wasn’t being bigoted or ignorant or condescending when he blurped out the words in question. Summed up forbes.com writer Peter Suciu:

“Anyone reading that transcript should realize that Biden had a slip of the tongue, something that isn’t exactly uncommon for the 78-year-old who has a long history of verbal gaffes. Biden has admitted he’s a ‘gaffe machine’ who often says the wrong thing, but unlike some of his actual misstatements on facts or questionable stories, there wasn’t really much to this story.”

So that brings to perhaps the real questions arising from the Biden-Paige comments – why did much of the public believe Biden was being racist, and what does that reaction show about exactly how much segregation-era Black baseball has permeated the public consciousness?

First off, it’s worth noting that modern political actors of all stripes will glom onto anything dopey said by their opponents, regardless of the comments’ pertinence or context. Such slippery, often disingenuous political punditry and maneuvering goes without saying in this day and age.

Now, to more fully answer those two existential queries, we can refer to Negro League Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick’s comments to Newsweek shortly after Biden made the Veterans Day comments about Satchel. Kendrick told Jon Jackson:

“It’s an honor, as we look at it, that the president has such an affinity for Satchel. We take absolutely no offense to what the president said. As a matter of fact, we applaud the president for continuing to be an advocate for this history.”

Kendrick added:

“He was making a statement to relate this story about this timeless Black baseball hero who did play in the Negro Leagues. That’s what the leagues were called. That is the name of our museum.”

Kendrick then discussed how some members of the public have trouble understanding why Black baseball continues to, in this day and age, be tagged with the apparently outdated word “Negro.”

“Even to this day I’ll get folks who will call and say, ‘Well, you all never thought about changing your name?’ Kendrick said “No, because it wasn’t called the ‘African American Leagues.’”

Kendrick also acknowledged the large information and knowledge gap held by younger generations today, especially among non-baseball fans. And therein lies the crux of the matter, at least when it comes to how Negro Leagues enthusiasts interact with society at large:

No matter how many tangible steps of progress in the effort to bring Black baseball history into the public consciousness – the upgrading to major-league level, the hat tipping campaigns, the fandom of presidents – a large slice of the general public remains ignorant about what the Negro Leagues were, what they represented, and even why the leagues had to exist at all.

It’s a lack of awareness I, and doubtlessly some of my buddies in the Negro Leagues community, have encountered in our daily lives. Often when someone who doesn’t know me well or at all asks me what I do for a living and what subjects I cover and research, I hesitate to answer for a beat or two, because I worry that the person with whom I’m talking might not know what the Negro Leagues were. I sometimes feel the same unease and equivocation when I wear clothes or apparel with the term “Negro Leagues” written out.

I’ve had other people give me everything from a raised eyebrow to a blank stare to a look of disgust in those situations, and it’s kind of uncomfortable. The last thing I want is for people to believe I’m racist, but even more, I become disheartened that this person has no knowledge of something that means so much to me in my career and as a person.

Those close to me know that I’m keen, often bullishly, on demanding that people understand historical context and have an appreciation for and knowledge of what has taken place in the past and how it impacts the modern day.

It frustrates me, for example, when folks conflate modern versions of political parties with the versions of those parties that existed a century and a half ago. I would hope that most people realize that since the Civil War the Democratic and Republican parties have to a very large extent essentially flip-flopped in terms of their policy platforms and ideological stances. The Democratic Party of 1860 is not the same Democratic Party of today, and likewise for the GOP, and such contextual acknowledgement is crucial to understand modern American democracy.

My stringency in terms of historical context impacting the modern day is perhaps best exemplified by the stridency of my music fandom. I pride myself on liking all kinds of music, and I place enormous emphasis on how the music of today is a product of every type and genre of music that came before, and I practically demand the same level of understanding and love of the music of the past.

It frustrates me when fans of Florida-Georgia Line or Carrie Underwood have never even listened to Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills or Patsy Cline, and when supposed hip hop fans are clueless about Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow and even Public Enemy. And my blood boils when I encounter fans of Zeppelin or Clapton who are completely ignorant of how those pasty-white British putzes based their entire careers on ripping off Skip James, Jimmy Reed and Willie Dixon

Ray Dandridge

I try to bring that approach to baseball history and the appreciation of it by the general public today, although I try to be less vociferous and indignant than I am regarding music. In my mind, to be modern-day baseball fan and aficionado requires one to know who Ray Dandridge or Pete Hill were just like such fans must be required to know Joe DiMaggio and Honus Wagner. All good baseball lovers must have a deep appreciation for everything – white and Black, good and bad – of what has come before and how that past continues to impact the American pastime in its current form.

I hope that much of this discussion doesn’t get bogged down by contrived histrionics over so-called “cancel culture” and “social justice warriors,” because alleged ideological extremism is fundamentally not what’s happening in terms of awareness of Black baseball history, and the type of often angry, borderline violent confrontations over such nebulous concepts and catchphrases like “microaggressions.”

Such ideological talk and vehement back-and-forth simply muddies the basic issue at play when it comes to the Negro Leagues – spreading awareness of the Negro Leagues and how important Black baseball is to our shared American culture.

Unquestionably such debates are necessary to have, especially as confusion surrounding what Critical Race Theory actually is has obfuscated the inherent truth that CRT exists, is vital and must be more greatly appreciated by the public as a whole if we are to ever reach some level of reconciliation between historic wrongs like slavery, Jim Crow and Native-American genocide with modern malaises like income inequality, the erosion of voting rights and the spread of political violence. They are conversations that we as a people simply have if we are to ever heal the myriad culture and ethnic rifts our forefathers ripped asunder.

And without a doubt the need for such comprehensive, mutual and patient discourse must eventually be had in the realm of baseball history and tradition, precisely because as America’s Game, baseball has continually and powerful been both a metaphor and a bellwether for where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going as a culture and a society.

The spread of Jim Crowism and institutional segregation, for example, was reflected just as much by the systematic ouster of all people of color from organized baseball in the 1880s, as it was by the disastrous Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896.

And the importance World War II played in the push for desegregation and the birth of the modern Civil Rights movement – specifically, how millions of Black American GIs saw that while they were fighting for democracy and human rights in Europe, at home they were victims of segregation and second-class citizenship – can perhaps also be reflected in the way Organized Baseball’s color line was shattered by Jackie Robinson, himself a military veteran, less than a year after the end of WWII.

All of that – the esoteric, the existential and the all encompassing – will eventually be required to take place within baseball scholarship and fandom so we can more fully appreciate what baseball is in America and how it continues to reflect “we the people.”

However, the cart cannot be placed before the horse. True, such weighty discussions surely must take place, but we can’t have an honest, productive discussion about, say, comparing Oscar Charleston to Babe Ruth before we are all, well, informed. Before such debates take place, we must all know who Babe Ruth and Oscar Charleston are.

Which team was better, the 1927 New York Yankees or the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords? Well, who were the Pittsburgh Crawfords? Is Shonei Ohtani the second coming of Martin Dihigo or Bullet Rogan? Martin Dihigo and Bullet Rogan? Who the heck were they anyway?

Martin Dihigo

Those of us who love and study the Negro Leagues, if we are to continue evangelizing about the greatness and sociological importance of pre-integration Black baseball, must first set out on a mission of teaching Negro Leagues 101.

Moreover, we must do so without condescension or patronization, and we must do it optimistically, encouragingly and open-heartedly. We must not – and as a devoted, hardcore cynic, I’ll admit this is a perpetual challenge for me – go into conversations with Negro Leagues neophytes assuming that their lack of awareness of Black ball isn’t rooted in racism, intolerance or antipathy, but rather a lack of access or introduction to a history that occurred decades and decades ago. Lack of knowledge does not necessarily imply lack of empathy or interest.

It simply means that, in the swirling typhoon of information presented to average people on a daily basis, some folks simply haven’t had an opportunity to learn about the majesty and importance of Black baseball.

Our goal should be to testifying to the greatness of the Negro Leagues with eagerness, confidence and joy. Make the people around us see why we love researching, reading about and discussing Black baseball. Joy, my friends, is infectious and, hopefully, universal. Our Negro Leagues heroes, despite the grueling, oppressive and often demeaning conditions that they faced day in and day out, pursued the national pastime with joy. It’s why they kept at it so doggedly and zealously, and it’s why they created legends filled with brilliance, virtuosity and resolute determination.

We owe it to those legends, those men and women from whom we derive inspiration and happiness, to bring that joy to the world at large, so the greats of Black baseball and their achievements will never be forgotten or overlooked anymore.

Postlude

As kind of a coda, I want to note that Biden certainly isn’t the first U.S. president to reference either Satchel Paige of the Negro Leagues in public comments. In fact, multiple other commanders-in-chief have brought up the same Satchel story about the relativity of age that Biden has, or ones very similar in narrative and themes.

Ronald Reagan – one president who’s been dogged by allegations of racism, or at the very least, apathy toward the challenges facing people of color – relayed an anecdote about Paige and age twice in 1984. The first came in August of that year, during an address to leaders of the Catholic Golden Age Association, while Reagan repeated the tale in November 1984 during a talk at a senior center in Milwaukee. At the time, Reagan was 73 himself.

Reagan again trotted out the Satch story in 1986 during a speech to employees of the Department of Health and Human Services. Here’s how Reagan told the story:

“I always think age is relative. There was once a very famous baseball pitcher, Satchel Paige. And no one quite knew how old Satchel was, but he still was throwing that ball. And somebody asked him about that, and his wise answer was, ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’ [Laughter] That’s how I came up with 39. [Laughter].”

Again, whether such a conversation by Satch happened verbatim or at all, I’m not sure.

Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, also pulled Paige out of the presidential bag or oratorical wonders when Bush gave a talk to employees of Ford Aerospace Space System in Palo Alto, Calif., in April 1989. As Bush Sr. stated in referring to a famous Satchel quote:

“You know – remember Satchel Paige, great black pitcher, self-proclaimed philosopher? They asked him what was the secret of his competitiveness. You remember what he said? ‘Don’t look back. Somebody might be gaining on you.’ Well, Satchel, like high technology, knew that as Americans we do look ahead and not back. We always have, and we must now, more than ever. For the coming decade will see and shape a rapidly changing workforce. To invest its talents will be our challenge as a nation.”

Bush Sr. also became perhaps the first sitting president to honor a group of Negro Leaguers at a speech or special gathering when he recognized members of the Negro League Baseball Players Association during a ceremony for African-American History Month in February 1992 at the White House. In his comments, Bush noted that he was a baseball fan and implied that he had affection for Negro League baseball.

George W. Bush with Warren O’Neil, Buck’s brother, at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony.

George W. Bush, the 43rd president and George H.W. Bush’s son, reached out even further to the Negro Leagues community when he presided over a tee-ball game on the South Lawn of the White House in 2007.

The event paid homage to Jackie Robinson, and Bush Jr. pointed out several Negro Leaguers who were in attendance, noting “there were some pioneers ahead of Jackie. And today we’re proud to welcome Negro League players who are here.” Speaking to the Negro Leaguers, Bush said “[i]magine what baseball would have been like had you been a part of the Major Leagues.”

(Also appearing at the event was the tee ball game’s “commissioner,” Frank Robinson, as well as several of Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers teammates, including Tommy Lasorda, Don Newcombe, Clyde King and Ralph Branca.)

In addition, in 2006, Bush Jr. posthumously awarded Buck O’Neil the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he presented the actual medal to Buck’s brother, Warren. Bush said Buck “lived long enough to see the game of baseball and America change for the better. He’s one of the people we can thank for that.”

Just two months before that ceremony, Bush released a statement after Buck’s death in October 2006:

“Buck O’Neil represented the best of America’s national pastime. He devoted his long and full life to baseball, and refused to allow injustice and discrimination to diminish his love of the game and his joyous, generous spirit. Laura and I extend our sympathies to his family and friends, and on behalf of all Americans we give thanks for the life of one of the great ambassadors in baseball history.”

And of course, in August 2013, President Barack Obama welcomed several former Negro Leaguers in the White House Blue Room and thanked them for everything they did and for helping pave the way for future African-American athletes and African Americans in general.

Finally, in 2020, as the country was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first lasting Negro League, four of the five living presidents took part in the nationwide “tip of the hat” effort, which I blogged about here. Articles about the commanders-in-chief tipping their caps are here, here and here.

’42 for 21′ joins the Hall of Fame battle

Rap Dixon is one of the top 10 baseball luminaries tabbed by the 42 for 21 Committee for Hall induction.

To kind of follow up on my last post, in which I excoriated the National Baseball Hall of Fame for completely botching the election process partially designed to – allegedly – give Negro Leaguers a renewed shot at induction, I reached out to the creators of the “42 for 21” Committee to get a little background, as well as reassurance that it’s not just me screaming wildly into the void.

Around the time the members of Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Era Committee were preparing to cast their votes – something the committee will as of now do just once every decade, with the next election not scheduled until 2031 – Ted Knorr, Gary Gillette and Sean Gibson drew up a list of segregation-era African-American baseball figures who’ve frequently been mentioned as potentially worthy of induction in Cooperstown.

They then sent their ballot out to their friends, Romans, countrymen and co-conspirators in the Negro Leagues community to get a sense of who the fans and historians of such legendary players, managers and owners from bygone days, i.e. those people today who actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to Black baseball, think should be elected to the Hall. 

In all, several dozen of those prospective balloteers responded with their choices; a Dec. 15 press release details the results.

The words and efforts of Ted, Gary and Sean – the first two of whom answered a few written questions about the 42 for 21 project and its results – prove that there’s a larger number of folks out there, in addition to me, who are steamed that the Early Baseball Era Committee only elected three new segregation-era African-American members when it voted last year. The ranks of the frustrated Negro Leagues enthusiasts who are peeved at the Hall are large in number and overflowing with rancor.

For us, the Hall needs to know there’s a lot of us who are upset that the hallowed institution in upstate New York and the way it continues to blatantly, coldly and insultingly perpetuate the injustice and bigotry that pre-integration Black baseball legends endured while they were living and playing.

It’s a subject that I’ve tried to address on this blog several times before (such as here, here and here), both quantitatively and qualitatively, and it’s a fight that now has been enjoined the the 42 for 21 project and the folks (including me) who’ve so far cast votes. (I’ll give the results from my ballot at the end of this post.)

In addition to appealing to baseball folks’ sense of justice and fairness, the 42 for 21 Committee also underscores that when the Hall’s current membership is analyzed and tallied, the numbers don’t add up. From the project Web site:

“There are several ways of looking at how equitably the Negro Leagues & Black Baseball are represented in Cooperstown. One way is to compare the percentage of Negro Leagues & Black Baseball players in the Hall of Fame who debuted in the Segregated Era to the percentage of African American or Latino players in the Hall of Fame who debuted in the Integrated Era.

“Currently, only 17 percent of players in the Hall from the Segregated Era come from the Negro Leagues & Black Baseball, while 44 percent of players from the Integrated Era are African American or Latino. That is a huge disparity and shows how much more attention needs to be paid to players from the Negro Leagues & Black Baseball.” [Emphasis in original.]

The goal of 42 for 21, as the Web site says, is “to bring much needed attention to these distinguished but overlooked Negro Leagues & Black Baseball players, managers, umpires, executives and pioneers.”

For more background on and media coverage of “42 for 21,” check out this and this. Without further ado, here’s the lightly edited transcript of my email interview with Ted and Gary:

Ryan Whirty: Why did you guys launch the 42 for 21 effort? Were you frustrated by the Hall’s indifference, or was it more of just an informative type of thing for the public?

Ted Knorr: To gently nudge the Hall into realizing that, now that the Negro Leagues are finally recognized as Major League, it needed to up the census count of Negro Leaguers in the Hall. Previously, it was the only league outside of the Majors with any representation (now, only Frank Grant – among players – has that distinction, i.e. having never played in a Major League). I think we all have been frustrated since 2016 when the Hall announced the 2020 election and the 10-year wait for the next one. The 42 for 21 movement is more of an informative thing for the Hall of Fame.

Gary Gillette: From my standpoint, it was extreme frustration that the Hall could be so indifferent to the injustice still being perpetrated on Negro Leaguers. Also, frustration that their solution – one token election every 10 years – seemed reasonable to them and, apparently, to the public, as the only complaints I saw were from the Negro Leagues’ community.

RW: What has been the reception to the 42 for 21 project and its results? Have they been welcomed by the HOF, researchers, and Negro Leagues fans? Has the effort been productive and worth it?

TK: Early with exposure from Jay Jaffe, Adam Darowski and now Ryan Whirty, the response has been great. We are up to about 80 respondents to our survey and seek more.

[With] the results, i.e. the early results, the 42 have not raised any controversy, but we do need to get the word out. The effort will be worth it in the end. I think the three of us (and now the nine-person steering committee) are confident of that.

GG: Reception has been good among those who know about our campaign, but we definitely need to reach a much wider audience. That will be our focus in the next few months.

RW: Briefly run down the results of the voting. Who made up the top 10, for example, and were you surprised by the results?

Cannonball Dick Redding also placed in the committee’s top 10. He’s also this writer’s No. 1 choice for induction.

TK: Since we made you wait so long for our response, gonna give you a scoop … this is the first rendering of the current top 10 since we went live for the first time on. Here is the top 10 in order:

Rap Dixon

Dick Redding

John Beckwith

Gus Greenlee

John Donaldson

Vic Harris

Dick Lundy

Grant Johnson

Newt Allen

Spottswood Poles

I like all 10 for the Hall … I should note that O’Neil, Minoso and Fowler were in the top 10 but have been removed since they have been inducted.

I was surprised by Dixon being No. 1. He isn’t even No. 1 in my opinion. I suspect perhaps my name being associated with the poll might have had some influence, but when I look at the pedigree of the voters I realize that perhaps I’m overrating my influence. Dixon is a very deserving candidate through his statistics, feelings of his peers and the legends he left. For me, Greenlee, Beckwith and Redding were my top three, and they are all right at the top.

GG: The voting results were quite erudite, IMO. No one will agree with every choice, so there were a few players I thought deserved more support and a few whose level of support surprised me. Overall, however, it is a solid slate, and our list of 43 (because of a tie for 42nd place) deserves serious discussion and meaningful debate.

RW: Where do you guys want to see this go from here? What is the next step, and are you optimistic about efforts like these and their prospects for affecting change?

TK: I think we need to get to work, publish editorial/informational pieces on the 42 for 21 website, perhaps petition the Hall for action … the clock is ticking. The upcoming Malloy Conference is an opportunity that should not be wasted. Publicity is something we all need – we appreciate your interest.

Given our cause, I can’t help but be optimistic. Also, I think the Hall’s efforts from the fall and the successful election of the Negro League candidates (with Minoso going in as an integrated-era Major League) was very well received and celebrated by the public.

GG: I am very optimistic about eventual success, as our cause is just and there is simply no plausible way to defend holding the next election in 2031 for a 2032 induction. To quote the estimable Spike Lee: the Hall needs to “Do the Right Thing,” and soon.

Blog readers and baseball fans are encouraged to learn more about the 42 for 21 committee. Feel free to send the guys an email or give them a call: Gary Gillette (313) 306-2233, Sean Gibson (412) 589-1906, Ted Knorr (papabell@aol.com) or 42for21@gmail.com.

Finally, here’s the people, in alphabetical order, I checked off on the 42 for 21 ballot who I believe belong in the NBHOF:

Newt Allen, John Beckwith, Ed Bolden, Chet Brewer, Bingo DeMoss, Dizzy Dismukes, Rap Dixon, John Donaldson, Bud Fowler, Gus Greenlee, Vic Harris, Bill Holland, Grant Johnson, Dick Lundy, Dave Malarcher, Oliver Marcell, Minnie Minoso, Dobie Moore, Alejandro Oms, Buck O’Neil, Bruce Petway, Spot Poles, Dick Redding, George Scales, George Stovey, C.I. Taylor, Quincy Trouppe, Frank Warfield.

There were several over whom I hemmed and hawed but ultimately didn’t vote for, including Sam Bankhead, Frank Duncan, Bill Francis, Fats Jenkins, Max Manning, Dan McClellan, Double Duty Radcliffe, Chino Smith, Candy Jim Taylor and Frank Wickware.

The Hall of Fame whiffs again

The last six months have been … bonkers. Bonkers and zany and even a little surreal at times. Not Hunter S. Thompson surreal, but sufficiently screwy and exhausting.

In August we had a Category 4 hurricane hit Louisiana, forcing many of us to skedaddle outta the Big Easy for a week or more. We in New Orleans escaped relatively unscathed – well, hot damn, the Army Corps of Engineers actually fixed the levees! – but many areas outside the metro area’s levee protection were completely deluged, with multiple towns, for all intents and purposes, being wiped off the map.

Possibly almost as catastrophic down these parts was, that, for the first seasons in 15 years, the Saints and their fans faced life without Drew Brees under center. Then the Pelicans started out 2-15 (I’ll just say it: Zion is a bust), and we had yet another year without professional baseball anywhere in the state. Thanks, Wichita. May your state be cursed with the return of Sam Brownback to the governor’s chair for 14 new terms.

And, of course, we as a society continued to fumble and bumble our way through a pandemic that seems like it will never end. I got jabbed, a lot of other people got jabbed, but we still had to deal with nitwit athletes like Kyrie Irving and Aaron Rodgers descending into full-scale, brain-melting conspiracy vortexes. 

Then came Oct. 21. That evening, a sudden, debilitating headache – while, I swear to goodness, hit when I was in the loo – ended up being a severe brain hemorrhage that put me in the hospital for 10 days. I was able to catch a couple World Series games while there, but I had to watch them sporadically and in bits because, even after the leak in my noggin was closed up and everything fixed, the splitting headache continued at full throttle for weeks. 

I think several points while watching the games, I thought the Seattle Pilots were playing the Page Fence Giants on the surface of Saturn, and Robert Redford was using a bat he fashioned from a massive Toblerone bar that was filled with Graig Nettles’ superballs instead of nougat, and the ghost of Phil Rizzuto was calling the games dressed as Slash from Guns ’n’ Roses. Fortunately I eventually realized all that was imaginary in my head. I mean, Saturn’s not a real place. Duh.

In the end, I returned home on Oct. 31, and it took a full two months to completely recover. But, luckily, I did end up recovering, and I was blessed that I suffered no long-term neurological or functional damage, an incredible stroke of good fortune resulting from calling 911 immediately while I was curled up on the bathroom floor feeling like the MC5 were literally in my head playing “Kick Out the Jams” (NSFW!) at absolutely top volume.

Then came the holidays and the New Year, and here we are, and here I am. The incredible run of events, as well as the rigors of my paying gig as a news reporter for the Louisiana Weekly, a job for which I am very grateful and of which I’m extraordinarily proud, has prevented me from posting anything on the blog for many months – or, sadly, from doing much baseball research and writing at all.

But even beyond all that, the past six months drained me – physically, psychologically and emotionally. I’ve experienced the entire gamut of intense emotion, from debilitating fear to wistful regret to ecstatic optimism to heated rage to, in the end, gratitude and love.

As a result, on many of the recent occasions when I’ve felt like possibly blogging, I’ve stopped myself, for one emotional reason or another. I didn’t want to recklessly express anger in an outburst I’d later regret, and I didn’t want to write while fueled by a manic euphoria that ended up in indecipherable nonsense.

And there’s certainly been a whole heck of a lot to react to going on baseball circles in the last year or so. First off, let’s get to the biggest bottom line in the sport: MLB is effectively shut down thanks to a labor lockout. The specter of a partially or completely lost 2022 MLB season shrouds the hardball universe in morose shadows.

A sad au revoir to the King.

Beyond that looming menace, the major developments – good, bad and meh – have whizzed by our ears like a Bill Foster fastball. Henry Aaron dies. MLB ravages the minor league system. Spider Tack ensnares the sport in a sticky web of confusion and deceit. MLB actually gets something right and stands up for voting rights, justice and fairness by moving the All Star game to Colorado and telling the reactionary dimwits in Georgia to stick it.

Aaaaaaaaaand … The Dodgers nominally have an alleged violent sexual predator in their rotation. The Cleveland club is now the Guardians, to the consternation of many obdurate, grumpy fans. (Meanwhile, the dinks down in the ATL persist in doing the embarrassing, degrading tomahawk chop. Message to Atlanta and Georgia: Thank you for Little Richard, REM and Outkast. But your state is still highly problematic. Get it together, you clods.) Shohei Ohtani turns in a brilliant, trailblazing and transformative season and earns an MVP. (Bullet Rogan, Leon Day and Martin Dihigo are smiling up there.) The Hall of Fame welcomes Jeter, Simba and Larry Walker, and it finally opens its doors – in something that should have happened 30 years ago – to Marvin Miller. (Hopefully Curt Flood will follow him someday soon.)

More on the Hall of Fame and an announcement in December by the new Early Baseball Era Committee a little later in this post.

Getting back to the subject of this blog, the Negro Leagues have been in the news as well with developments that are a bittersweet mixed blessings. First, the Negro Leagues are now Major Leagues! I know that happened more than a year ago, but its monumental importance cannot be overstated and still hasn’t dimmed yet.

Of course, merging statistics from the 1920-1948 Negro Leagues is a long, meticulous process, and it might be a while before its completed in a way that’s fair, objective and inclusive. But the folks at Seamheads and Baseball Reference have done Herculean work on it so far and have made a great deal of progress. Oscar Charleston is now officially second in career batting average, behind only a racist, churlish, spiteful guy from – ugh, here we go again with these guys – Georgia. Jud Wilson is now fifth, and Turkey Stearns is seventh.

To go further, Oscar and Jud are also in the career top ten in OBP, and Oscar, Turkey and Mule Suttles are in the top ten in on-base plus slugging. The top ten in pitching winning percentage now includes Ray Brown and Bullet Rogan.

Granted, Baseball Reference and others still have to do further integration of records, but it will come in time. But someday soon Rap Dixon will officially hold the hits in consecutive at bats record. Keep the faith, roomie!

Rap Dixon

There’s also the issue of giving sufficient recognition and respect to all the other men and women who filled out the complete history of Black baseball outside of the official Negro Leagues of 1920-48. The aspirations and accomplishments of all who persevered in the shadows of the national pastime – from 19th-trailblazers like Octavius Catto, Waxey Williams and the Walker brothers, to the people who kept the torch burning in the early 20th century and have to get their proper due, like Grant Johnson, Dick Redding and John Donaldson.

We also need to help the general public understand that Black baseball was everywhere and omnipresent in communities of color across the country, just like the sport was in white society. Circuits like the Negro Southern League, the West Coast Negro Baseball Association and the various regional loops that sprouted up in Texas and Pennsylvania and elsewhere need to be honored and brought into the light. The same goes for amateur, semipro, barnstorming and independent teams – like the Philadelphia Pythians, the Cuban Giants, the Page Fence Giants, the Columbia Giants, the New York Lincoln Giants, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, and the various traveling all-star teams.

On the sandlots and at Greenlee Field, at HBCUs and on municipal baseball fields, at Rickwood Field and Hamtramck Stadium, African Americans played, managed, scouted, gambled, wheel-and-dealed, sold tickets, hawked hot dogs, watered grass and clickity-clacked on typewriters in the press box. Hard-nosed scoop hounds and truth tellers and soothsayers like Sam Lacy, Fay Young, Wendell Smith and Sol White laid everything out in inky black and white, warts and all, the writing on the wall. They were there, too.

Sam Lacy

There’s also the overtures to diversity, multiculturalism, harmony and advocacy, ones that took place in 1930s Bismarck, N.D.; in the seemingly faraway land of Japan in the 1920s; on the chilly Canadian plains and francophone ballfields of Quebec between the world wars; in the Golden State, where an integrated winter league thrived; and on the island of Cuba, where white and Black players joined Latinx athletes from all across South America on the diamonds and in the cantinas after the game. Barnstorming white, religious dudes with long beards played scrappy, ragamuffin, semi-pro Black teams in just about every state in the Union. 

Point is, there’s a lot more to show and tell the world when it comes to the history, culture and legacy of segregated Black baseball.

Which brings me to my final subject, and the one that’s been eating at me for several months. When I said earlier in this post that I’ve often lately hesitated to blog about certain topics because I was afraid I’d become overly emotional and let my frustration and ardor get a little out of control, this was the topic I was primarily mulling over, the development that lit a fire under my butt.

So here it is: the Hall of Fame voters screwed up. Big time.

I’ll repeat.

The Hall of Fame voters screwed up.

To wit:

When the members of the Hall’s Early Baseball Era Committee only elected two people, Buck O’Neil and Bud Fowler – the voters brazenly displayed their ignorance, apathy and timidity. It was appalling, egregious and a dismal failure. You dropped the ball, folks. 

Thanks a lot.

And now we have to wait 10 more fricking years until the numbnuts on the committee have another chance to get off their butts, actually do research into the people on the ballot, and do the right thing.

I know there are some members of the Early Baseball committee who did the right thing when voting and who did cast their ballots for more candidates. I know there are some who do have the knowledge and conscience to throw their weight behind more candidates.

But apparently it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough, is it?

To be sure, both Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil absolutely deserve to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and I’m ecstatic that they’re finally getting in. And most definitely do Minnie Minoso and Tony Oliva deserve admission to the shrine in Cooperstown.

Bruce Petway should be in the Hall.

But Dick Redding also deserves to be in. So does Dick Lundy. And John Donaldson and Bruce Petway and Grant Johnson and Rap Dixon and Vic Harris and Dobie Moore and Newt Allen and John Beckwith.

Damn it, they do.

People have worked their tails off to prove as much to you, and the fact that the members of that committee didn’t even care is a slap in the face to us in the passionate world of Black baseball history, but it’s the ultimate sign of disrespect and insult to the men and women who toiled in obscurity, crammed into cramped buses for endless road trips, stayed one step ahead of Klan members and other racists who cursed their existence, ate dinners of canned sardines and crackers, and played eight games a week in everything from Major League stadiums to ragged, dusty small-town ballfields.

A whole bunch of dedicated researchers and number crunchers poured through thousands and thousands of rolls of microfilm, deciphering box scores and compiling those statistics to show how the accomplishments of Black baseball could finally, at long last be quantified.

Dr. Revel and his hardy, intrepid team of organizers and builders created a brand new Negro Southern League Museum in Birmingham. They did it from scratch, because they wanted to honor the men and women who drove and supported Negro League baseball in the South, a region that is often overlooked by history. Plus the original Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City continues to strengthen its finances and grow its exhibits and other facilities immensely.

Officials and members of a committee devoted years to chronicling, tell and champion the career of John Donaldson, for very little in return except the type of pride and fellowship to be found when a group of people pull together for a single goal – a goal to honor and finally give Donaldson his just do.

The Negro Southern League Museum.

My buddy Ted Knorr has criss-crossed Pennsylvania and beyond, speaking at schools and libraries and Rotary Club meetings to help people know and understand the greatness of Rap Dixon. He’s written articles, done countless interviews, pressed the flesh with team executives, cemetery superintendents and business owners. Ted even made T-shirts supporting Rap!

I really wish you Hall committee voters who didn’t cast ballots for more candidates could understand the effort, time and often their own money these types of crusaders have expended over decades of their lives. I wish you would take time to actually understand the work and  emotion we’ve all put in.

It’s never enough, is it?

What else do you need? What else can we possibly do short of yelling in your faces? 

Tell us, what do you want to happen?

I even suspect that the two segregated Black baseball legends the Early Era committee did elect – Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil, who, again, absolutely should be in the Hall – gained admission because the voters knew they’d have a PR disaster on their hands if they didn’t.

Buck should have gotten elected with the huge class of 2006, but he wasn’t, and fans and researchers were outraged at that dereliction. The Hall knew it made a big mistake then because they got an earful of anger. So all the voters knew about Buck and the controversy, so they didn’t really have to brush up on all things Buck. They didn’t have to lift a finger.

Bud Fowler was elected for essentially the same reason as that for Buck’s induction – the committee voters already knew about Bud simply because his name was in the news. Bud had deservedly won SABR’s Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legend  in 2020, so, again, the committee voters just had to read a couple newsletters to find out about Bud. If Bud hadn’t received that honor, voters on the committee would never have heard about him, so I guarantee you those wouldn’t have bothered to vote him in.

For Buck, the reasoning was, “People will be pissed if we don’t elect him this time.” For Bud, I have a feeling there was little reasoning beyond, “Meh, I guess so.”

And now we have to wait until 2031. But I surmise it’ll just be the same old, same old out of Hall voters.

As I said, thanks a lot.

Now you see why I hesitated to get back on the blog. Because I’ve been upset and angry. (Well, and my brain sprung a leak.) I didn’t want to let my emotions get the best of me, but I suppose I just did. I apologize.

Kind of.

Those of us in the Negro Leagues community don’t do all this for own own personal glory and enrichment. We do it because we love the Negro Leagues, and we want to chronicle their history and tell the world about them to they will be remembered, respected and appreciated for what they stood for – perseverance in the face of virulent racism, community self-reliance and entrepreneurship – and what they accomplished for people of color and society as a whole.

Granted, it’s rewarding to see my byline on articles, and I certainly enjoy getting paid for my time, effort and persistence.

But I’m never going to get anywhere approaching “wealthy” or even “well off” for doing what I do, and the same goes for the large majority of my peers. I knew that when I first started researching and writing about the Negro Leagues. (Well, I knew I’d never be rich when I chose journalism as a college major. Message to prospective collegians and their families: Do not, under any circumstances, even consider a major in journalism. In terms of usefulness and employability upon graduation, journalism ranks just below fine arts and just above philosophy. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be J-majors.)

There one significant reward to being a Negro Leagues enthusiast: the sense of fellowship and l’esprit de corps our little community has forged and continued to nurture. We are, in a very real sense, a family. We support and encourage each other, because we have a shared goal, and because every one of us, to a man and woman (or wherever you sit on the gender-identity spectrum), is just really, really nice. We’re fun to be around, and we’re quite cool.

I learned that when I attended my first Malloy Conference in 2012 in Cleveland, because every single attendee welcomed me with proverbial and literal open arms. I was instantly accepted, and I knew right away that I was “home.”

I’ll be there.

This year’s Malloy is scheduled (if COVID doesn’t ruin it again) for June 2-4 in Birmingham. Please consider joining us. We’d love to see you.

This diatribe is already much too long as it is, so I’ll stop my rambling. I’m not sure how much I blog this year, but I do have a few posts I want to finish before I decide the way forward. 

In the meantime, stay safe and well and happy. Pitchers and catchers report in just about a month. Theoretically, at least  …

New Orleans becomes a major league city

Allen Page (left) later in life with Hall of Fame shortstop Willie Wells. (Photo courtesy of Rodney Page.)

Editor’s note: This is the unabridged version of an article that I wrote for the April 26 issue of the Louisiana Weekly. I started the article a couple months ago, so a few of the time-related references, such as the beginning of this year’s MLB season, are a little dated, but only by a month or two.

In the June 22, 1940, issue of the Louisiana Weekly, sports columnist Eddie Burbridge confirmed the reports that had swirled around Black New Orleans for a few weeks.

The city was joining the baseball big leagues.

In a recruiting and economic coup, local businessman, promoter and baseball kingpin Allen Page had become part owner of the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League, which, along with the venerated Negro National League, was one of the segregation-era Black major leagues.

Beginning with a July 7 clash with the Cleveland Bears at Pelican Stadium, the Stars would split their second-half season with the Gateway City as the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars.

After steadily growing in national influence and economic clout on baseball’s biggest stage for several years, Page had landed what he and the city’s African-American hardball fans had dreamed of — recognition and reward in America’s pastime.

Burbridge voiced the elation and pride of the Crescent City’s Black fandom:

“This column wishes Allen Page the best of luck in his new venture. He has long tried to provide the city with major baseball, and it looks like his efforts have been crowned at last.”

However, running under the exhilaration was an ever present current of frustration and lingering melancholy, one the city’s Black population had battled for decades — that because of intransigent segregation and acute racism, the Stars, like all of Black baseball, and indeed all of Black society, were still viewed by mainstream white America as second-class and unworthy of respect or equality.

As long as the looming shadow of Jim Crow and its pernicious, lingering impact on history continued to exist, the Stars and the fans who loved them would never get their full due.

However, after decades of persistent advocacy and tireless, exhaustive research, that has now, at long last, changed.

In December of last year, Major League Baseball announced that the histories and statistical records of seven top-level Negro baseball circuits — including the Negro American League between 1937 and 1948 — would now be considered fully major league, equals with every long-recognized MLB leagues of so-called “Organized baseball.”

That means that now, finally, after decades in the shadows, legendary slugger Josh Gibson is officially equal to Babe Ruth, that ageless pitcher Satchel Paige is officially on a par with Walter Johnson, and tenacious, pugnacious Oscar Charleston — the man long considered by many as the greatest all-around player in history, regardless of race or era — officially stands shoulder to shoulder with Ty Cobb, the infamous racist whose malevolent bigotry held undo sway on the minds of white America and helped maintain Jim Crow in baseball. (To be fair, a great deal of information and literature has emerged in recent years arguing that Cobb’s reputation as a bigot is overblown. You be the judge.)

It also means that every team that was a member of those seven Negro Leagues during the stated time periods are now officially, in every way, Major League teams. That includes the 1940-42 New Orleans-St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League and every player and manager on its rosters.

New Orleans now, for the first time ever, has a history as a Major League Baseball city.

Something that no white teams based in the Big Easy ever reached was achieved by Allen Page and the players and managers of the Stars.

March 2, 1940, Chicago Defender

The news struck a deeply personal chord with Rodney Page, son of Allen Page, the entrepreneur and unflagging advocate for New Orleans Black baseball who brought the Stars to the Big Easy.

“This milestone achievement is deeply personal for me,” said Rodney, who now lives in Austin, Texas. “It is an important part of my life’s journey, and a significant dimension of my family’s story. It is something that I am extremely proud of and treasure immensely.”

Rodney said he continues to be awed by the myriad roles his father played both locally and nationally, as a savvy baseball team owner and executive, gutsy and influential sports promoter, executive officer in the Negro Southern League, and frequent attendee of the boisterous, high-stakes national meetings of the NNL and NAL.

Rodney said those connections, forged by hard-nosed negotiations and entrepreneurial daring, are what brought major league heft to New Orleans.

Rodney Page with the author

“His business acumen and stellar contributions were well known in New Orleans and throughout the South,” he said. “His risk-taking nature was on full display in 1940 as he became the owner of the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League with the designation of official major league status.”

The significance of the Stars’ elevation to major league status is certainly appreciated by Negro Leagues researchers, writers and educators nationwide. Kent State professor, Negro Leagues author and Society for American Baseball Research official Leslie Heaphy noted Allen Page’s many accomplishments — including the establishment and operation of the annual North-South All-Star Game at Pelican Stadium — as evidence of New Orleans’ importance to Black baseball history. She hopes that might help the modern baseball world shine a light on the Big Easy.

“Allen Page helped bring the team to the city to promote and elevate the level of play in the city,” Heaphy said. “With his support of the North-South All-Star game, it made it easier to bring the team to the city. Seeing the team as a major-league team now will hopefully bring more attention to all those who played, managed and owned the ball club.”

It cannot be understated the massive role Page played on the New Orleans sports and business over four decades in the city, within the Black community and in reaching and forming partnerships with white leaders. His business savvy, promotion and marketing savvy, and his dedication to local baseball also brought him renown and respect nationally. In October 1943, legendary Pittsburgh Courier journalist Wendell Smith called Page “a fair and unbiased promoter … whose whose record stands for itself …” Smith added that “Mr. Page has done more good for Negro baseball than any promoter in the South …”

Page’s dedication to the game and the resulting high regard in which he was held was also reflected in 1947, when he was chosen president of the Negro Southern League. Page, who also at the time owned the New Orleans Creoles, an NSL member team, was described thusly by journalist C.J. Kincaide in coverage of the June 1947 league meeting:

“Mr. Page is no new figure to baseball. In addition to being a successful businessman in New Orleans, he has been a promoter of baseball for a number of years and is well known and highly respected by owners and managers of both the Negro American and National Leagues.”

But while Allen Page was building his businesses and amassing clout in the baseball world, America and Black Americans as a whole were impacted by global events that would eventual plant the seeds of the modern Civil Rights movement.

Ray Doswell, vice president of curatorial services at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, noted that at the time the Stars moved to New Orleans, America was on the verge of a great awakening of national awareness and social conscience, one precipitated by the entry of the United States into the Second World War.

World War II was a major revelation,” Doswell said. “African Americans were fighting valiantly against fascists and Nazis abroad, while suffering indignities and bias at home. Among the opportunities denied African Americans, of course, was the ability to play Major League Baseball. This irony is not lost on many observers in progressive politics, the Black press, as well as the communist left press and others. It was often reported, reflected and investigated.”

The effects of World War II were also immediately and more tangibly visible on the baseball diamond. Between the draft and the military enlistment of hundreds of professional players, both Black and white, the quality of the game presented in the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues suffered to varying degrees.

Ray Doswell

However, Doswell said, the impact of the personnel drain on Black baseball was less significant, meaning the Negro Leagues now often offered a more exciting, appealing version of the game than the depleted major leagues, a development that opened the eyes of a growing number of whites to the top-notch quality of Black baseball.

On top of the slowly increasing awareness of Black baseball among white fans, the war brought financial success for some Negro Leagues teams and players, who discovered that the greater attention being paid to Black baseball translated to increases at the turnstiles and in the financial ledgers.

In addition, with thousands of young men heading off to Europe or the Pacific, high-paying jobs in American factories and other industrial businesses opened up to Black workers who previously would have been barred from such white-dominated jobs. Thus, as the vast wartime industrial growth benefited many Black workers and their families, it also enriched Black communities as a whole.

Thus, on several levels, World War brought the potential for greater advancement for Black Americans — socially, economically, politically and culturally — for which the Negro Leagues served as a microcosm. The early 1940s saw what has become known as a golden age of Black baseball.

“Fans and others began to question the validity of segregated baseball,” Doswell said. “This is not to say that all Negro Leagues teams enjoyed the same success as the [Homestead] Grays or the Kansas City Monarchs on the field and with fans, but as Black communities and economies fared, so did Black baseball.”

Such a heady situation is what birthed the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars, whose migration to the Big Easy also reflected the clout Allen Page had on the national scene.

Jan. 24, 1942, Chicago Defender

The seeds of the Stars’ move were sowed in the years immediately preceding 1940, when Page routinely recruited numerous top-level Negro Leagues teams from across the country — including the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, Birmingham Black Barons and Chicago American Giants — to come to New Orleans for preseason and post-season exhibition games, usually at Pelican Stadium. Thousands of fans usually attended the games — some reached 10,000 or more — and helped raise the Crescent City’s baseball profile.

That build-up in popularity got another huge shot of adrenaline in the fall of 1939, when Page hatched the North-South All-Star Game. Designed as a postseason complement to the prestigious East-West All-Star Game held each year in Chicago that was the highlight of each Negro League season.

While the North-South game never developed into the same grand spectacle as the East-West contest, it became a staple of the Negro Leagues’ post-season festivities and exhibitions, drawing the best players from across the country, including, specifically, players from New Orleans, Louisiana and the South as a whole. The contest further cemented New Orleans as a reliable, attractive Black baseball outpost in the South, a region that traditionally didn’t have a baseball scene as thriving and vibrant as the more traditional ones in the North and Midwest.

With high-profile exhibitions filling out the baseball calendar and the North-South game remaining a staple in New Orleans for a decade, the time was ripe for Page to execute his greatest coup. In March 1940, he trekked to Chicago to rub shoulders and shake hands at the spring meeting of the executives of the NNL and NAL teams; although Page didn’t yet have ownership or management of a team in either league, his presence doubtlessly allowed him to establish the connections and partnerships needed to land a big-time club of his own.

Pelican Stadium

After returning to his home base, Page promptly arranged several April exhibitions between NNL and NAL squads that were touring the South as part of spring training. He also called a meeting of New Orleans baseball prospects to lay out his plans for the upcoming season and brief them on how local lads would fit into those exploits. Penned Burbridge in the March, 16, 1940 issue of the Louisiana Weekly:

“With popular interests in New Orleans stimulated by major attractions presented last season, Mr. Page expects 1940 to prove a banner year for local baseball fans and has made plans to present the best talent possible.”

And boy, did Page deliver on the promise.

“New Orleans became the home of a major ball club this week,” trumpeted the Jun 1, 1940, Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s most important Black newspapers, “following the announcement that Allen Paige [sic], well known New Orleans sportsman, had purchased the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League.”

Added the Courier:

“One of the best baseball cities in the country, New Orleans has been dickering for a team in organized baseball for some time. Paige’s [sic] purchase now assures Crescent City fans a season of topnotch [sic] baseball.”

The St. Louis Stars had been foundering a little at the gate and on the field — they’d finished far behind the first-half pennant winners in the NAL — and Page and the rest of the NAL executives hoped the move to a dual-city home base would be a shot in the arm that the franchise needed. 

Gary Ashwill, on his stellar Agate Type blog, actually discussed the travails of the late-1930s St. Louis Stars in a May 2018 post. The article chronicles the saga of a team — or rather, a team name, because over the course of three decades there were several iterations of the “St. Louis Stars,” with different owners, executives, players, origins, geographic paths and home parks.

The 1939 Stars, Gary notes, were the third version of the team, owned by real estate tycoon, night club owner and numbers runner Allen Johnson, who founded the club in Illinois in the mid-1930s as an independent team. They joined the NAL in 1937.

Gary points to a few of the challenges that faced the 1939 that might have spurred Johnson to usher Allen Page and New Orleans into the Stars’ fold.

“Few teams have suffered quite as much at the hands of an incomplete historical record as the 1939 St. Louis Stars,” he writes. “They were a pretty good team — the second half champions of the Negro American League, in fact, losing the pennant in a five-game series to the first-half champion Monarchs. But scouring the newspapers at the time reveals a paltry 15-16 record [the mark has been updated to 17-16 after further research] for the Stars in the Negro American League regular season (along with three losses to NNL teams). Clearly a large number of games were not reported, at least in the newspapers that have been found so far, and a lot remains to be uncovered.”

Gary adds that “[I]n addition to a tangled history and poor reportage, the ’39 St. Louis Stars have suffered from a lack of recognizable stars.” The highest-profile member of the ’39 Stars was probably catcher Quincy Trouppe, who was the team’s only bona fide star. The rest of the roster consisted mostly of solid, if somewhat unremarkable, players and pitchers, several of whom made the transition to New Orleans in 1940 with the franchise. I’ll get to the 1940 New Orleans roster in a bit.

The 1939 St. Louis Stars, before moving to New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Gary Ashwill.)

Unfortunately, Trouppe was not among them; following the 1939 campaign, he played in the Mexican League for several years, then finished up his playing career in the States, before managing in the Puerto Rico League. In 1952, at the age of 39, cracked the lineup of the Cleveland Indians, catching six games for the MLB club before suiting up for 80-odd games with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. He later scouted for the St. Louis Cardinals.

The newly branded New Orleans-St. Louis Stars debuted in their new hometown, and launched the second half of the league’s split season — on July 7 at Pelican Stadium, where they hosted the Cleveland Bears.

Unfortunately, the Stars fizzled out in their home opener, losing three of four games to Cleveland in the opening series. About 2,000 fans attended the contest, which was probably under expectations.

George Mitchell

The team that now called the Big Easy its “half home” was managed by George Mitchell, a 40-year-old Sparta, Ill., native whose career as a journeyman pitcher in the Negro Leagues was winding down. He first joined the Stars organization as player-manager in 1938 and piloted the club through the 1941 season.

Mitchell came to the franchise with some serious cred. In 1939, the Atlanta Daily World called Mitchell “one of the shrewdest baseball managers in the business,” and in January 1940 Homestead Grays owner and eventual member of two sports national halls of fame Cum Posey named Mitchell the manager of Posey’s annual “all-american” team in the Pittsburgh Courier.

(In hindsight, columnist Fay Young in 1944 declared Mitchell’s time as the New Orleans Stars’ skipper of marginal success at best; the Defender writer stated that “Mitchell tried New Orleans out a few years ago and didn’t do so well. Maybe it was because the St. Louis tag injured him with the New Orleans fans.” Young’s comments reveal one reason why the Stars’ tenure in the Crescent City, while historically significant now in modern day, never achieved the lofty heights predicted for it.)

The Stars’ pitching staff was anchored by Gene Smith, a 24-year-old righty from Ansley, a small community in Jackson Parish in north central Louisiana. Smith was just starting his career as a hurler, debuting with the Atlanta Black Crackers in 1938. Overall, Smith spent eight seasons pitching in the Negro Leagues, a tenure broken up by a three-year hitch in the Army, and his biggest claim to baseball fame would be pitching three no-hitters during his time as a professional moundsman.

Also pitching for the Stars during the tenure in New Orleans was right-hander Jack Bruton, an Alabama native whose brief Negro Leagues career lasted five season; Walter “Lefty” Calhoun of Tennessee, whose lengthy, respected time in Black baseball stretched for a decade and a half from 1932 to 1946 and included stops with the Montgomery Grey Sox, the Memphis Red Sox, the New York Black Yankees and the Indianapolis Clowns; and righty Frank McAllister, a kid from Arkansas whose career spanned several years in the 1930s and 1940s with a handful of teams.

In the field, the Stars were bolstered by a lineup of solid, if somewhat unremarkable, veterans, including Missouri native John “the Brute” Lyles, an infielder who was in his late 20s and whose career also included stops in Indianapolis, Homestead and Cleveland; Jackson, Miss., native Buddy Armour, an outfielder whose career spanned 19 seasons, beginning with the Indianapolis ABCs in 1933 and concluding in the early 1950s, when he actually broke into Organized Baseball with a couple minor-league teams in Canada; Alabaman Bobby Robinson, a dependable, well respected infielder whose defensive prowess made him a familiar name to many Black baseball fans and whose career was in its twilight by the time he hooked up with the Stars; Marshall Riddle, a heavy-hitting, 22-year-old infielder from Arkansas whose career spanned a half-dozen or so years; and outfielder and three-time East-West All-Star Dan Wilson from Yazoo City, Miss., who played for a dozen years that included a debut with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1938 and subsequent stops with the New York Black Yankees, Homestead Grays and Philadelphia Stars.

May 24, 1941, Chicago Defender

So how did the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars fare? Despite the early blush of optimism experienced by the New Orleans faithful in summer 1940, the team did … OK. They finished the season at .500, with a mark of 22-22, placing them in fourth place in the seven-team NAL. Riddle led the team in batting at .377, and Smith paced the pitching staff with a mark of 4-3 and an ERA of 2.76. Riddle and Calhoun were selected for the 1940 East-West All-Star Game, while Smith pitched for the South in the North-South contest.

Of significance was the fact that the vast majority of the Stars’ home games took place in New Orleans, which validated the NAL’s faith in the Crescent City as a location for a big-league franchise (as well as highlighted the plummeting enthusiasm for the Stars in St. Louis).

Through the 1940 campaign, the Stars were somewhat streaky — they began the league season with a calamitous run of losses — and were never able to grab hold of a solid winning streak or make a serious play for the second-half NAL pennant. The June 22 Chicago Defender said the Stars “have caused many of the clubs that thought they were pennant bound plenty of trouble,” and in early August the Stars played the Baltimore Elite Giants as part of a four-team doubleheader in Yankee Stadium, with the New Orleans-St. Louis team winning 6-4, while the Memphis Red Sox topped the New York Black Yankees in the other game.

Another highlight, especially for the Big Easy’s fans, occurred when an exhibition by Olympic legend Jesse Owens — he won a race against, of all things, a motorcycle cop — punctuated a Stars doubleheader sweep over the Toledo Crawfords, who represented the shambling remnants of the once-great Pittsburgh Crawfords franchise. (Also of significance was who pitched against the Stars in one of the games — Johnny Wright, the native New Orleanian who would later play in the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system.)

An apparent rivalry ignited between the New Orleans-St. Louis club and their fellow NALers, the Memphis Red Sox; in early September, following the teams’ 3-3 split in a recent six-game series, Mitchell reportedly challenged the Tennessee team to a rubber-match series to determine the better Mississippi River squad team. Stated the Defender:

“A grudge series playoff for undisputed possession of second place is what Manager George Mitchell desires from the Red Sox management. He believes with the great spirit of rivalry existing between the two clubs, fans who witness the games are likely to see as much or better baseball than in a world series.”

Unfortunately, it’s not immediately clear if such a grudge series occurred.

The 1941 season started out fairly well for the Stars, whose big bats kept them lively through the first third of the campaign or so, while in June, Allen Page traveled to New York City to again attend the summer meeting of NNL and NAL executives.

The early part of the ’41 Stars campaign featured a barnstorming series of preseason exhibitions with the Chicago American Giants; the tour was scheduled to stop in several Louisiana locales, including Baton Rouge, Hammond and Monroe (now itself the unlikely home of a major-league team), as well as games in southwest Mississippi. In mid-season came a brutal, month-long barnstorming excursion for the Stars, during which the dual-home club flashed serious clout at the plate and rounded into shape on the mound after a rocky start to the season for the New Orleans pitchers.

Tom Parker

Another highlight was the mid-season signing of well-traveled slugger Tom Parker, a native of Alexandria, La., who had played several years with the Homestead Grays and most recently suited up for the New York Black Yankees. The Louisiana Weekly subsequently sang Parker’s praises in its June 7, 1941, issue, reporting that the new acquisition had clubbed three homers, two triples and six doubles since joining Allen Page’s aggregation. The publication stated:

“… Parker proved one of the best outfielders and greatest hitters in the Negro National League. He has also been used as a relief hurler and showed brilliant form on the mound. He possesses one of the greatest throwing arms in the game.”

The paper added that “[Parker’s] desire to be near home, because of business interest, gave the Stars an opportunity to obtain his services.” (Parker would later serve in the Army during the war and ultimately retire from baseball in 1948. He died in 1964 at age 52 near his hometown in Rapides Parish.)

In June the team went on a tear in the early summer — the Weekly described them as “[c]harging down upon the Negro American League leaders with vengeance in their bats and red pennants dangling before their eyes” — before hosting a familiar face at Pelican Stadium in mid-June.

Arriving in New Orleans for a doubleheader was Winfield “Lucky” Welch, another son of Louisiana whose professional baseball career began more than a decade earlier in N’Awlins. Welch was skippering the Birmingham Black Barons, the greatest, most storied Black baseball team in the South; he’d later lead the Barons to two straight NAL championships in 1943 and ’44. As far as the doubleheader at hand in June 1941, the Alabamians won the first game, and the second game was rained out.

In late June 1941, the Pittsburgh Courier reported on the Stars’ hot start, albeit with a touch of sarcastic skepticism. The paper stated:

“Reports trickling in from the road show that Manager Mitchell’s great aggregations, formerly known as the St. Louis Stars, and which has so impressed the sports scribes of the nation that many of them inevitably call them the St. Louis Stars or the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars or the whatchamacallits, are going great guns and setting up a terrific pace …”

But the team sputtered as the season wore on and finished in third place in the now-six-team NAL with a record of 17-24. Leading the aggregation at the plate was Wilson, who swatted .323 for the season, while McAllister paced the pitchers at a paltry 2-4 mark and a 4.88 ERA. Although the team enjoyed a solid season on offense, the pitching dropped off significantly from the previous year.

That was the second, and, as it turned out, last complete season enjoyed by the Stars during their time in New Orleans. The 1942 edition of the team never really got off the ground and folded early in the season, marking a substantial disappointment for Page, the team and their fans. The franchise reappeared in 1943 as the Harrisburg Stars in Pennsylvania, but that phase of the club’s existence also didn’t go well.

(As a side note in the Stars’ epilogue, George Mitchell bailed from St. Louis in 1945 as the last vestiges of the franchise collapsed and landed, coincidentally, as the manager of the Chicago Brown Bombers of the nascent but ill-fated United States Baseball League, the half-baked enterprise established by Gus Greenlee and Branch Rickey as a feeder Negro league for the Dodgers and, in Rickey’s hopes, the rest of Organized Baseball. Mitchell then signed on for the lasts gasps of another Black baseball franchise when in 1949 he became business manager of the NAL’s Houston Eagles, a rickety venture allegedly representing a new phase of the legendary Newark Eagles franchised forged by Effa and Abe Manley. Mitchell’s service in Houston lasted well less than a year. He died four years later in Sparta at the age of 53.)

The post-mortem on the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars read like the ones of other Negro American League teams over the course of the loop’s existence. The NAL remained weaker than the NNL for much of that stretch, and the franchises as a whole also proved a little less stable and permanent than those of the senior league. Clubs often came and went, some lasting just a season or two.

The Page Hotel on Dryades Street in New Orleans, where Allen Page conducted his many businesses, including sport promoting and team ownership and management. (Photo courtesy of Rodney Page.)

Such was the economics of Black baseball in the South, and Black baseball in general. However, the Stars time in New Orleans was nonetheless significant and, in hindsight, quite an accomplishment given the rough haul Southern teams faced compared to their big brothers in the North. It also must be kept in mind that for decades, no Major League Baseball teams existed in Organized Baseball in the South; while Negro Leagues teams like the Stars, the Birmingham Black Barons and the Memphis Red Sox did reach the top levels of Black baseball for several years on and off, the South only had minor-league teams in white baseball. (The first MLB team to lay down roots in the South was the Atlanta Braves, who moved to Georgia from Milwaukee in 1966.)

Rodney Page said that his father’s tireless efforts at promoting Black baseball in New Orleans, including the arrival of the Stars in 1940, left an indelible mark on the city, and a place of pride in Rodney’s heart. He said:

“I am continually amazed at my father’s many accomplishments as he transcended and excelled despite the shackles of the Jim Crow South and racism in America. I can only imagine the obstacles he had to face and overcome. I am honored to call him dad, and proud to be his son.”

While Allen Page deserves a book-length biography, I want to at least highlight his experiences following the Stars’ departure and as his career in New Orleans reached its twilight. The esteem, admiration and appreciation the city held for Page was expressed in October 1950 with a testimonial dinner that, according to the Louisiana Weekly, “commemorat[ed] twenty years of faithful and successful services in the baseball promotion field and achieving a position as one of Louisiana’s leading sportsmen.”

At the event, Page received a bronze plaque, and the keynote speech was given by Grambling College (now University) President Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones. Music was presented by Mary Wilson (who was not the Mary Wilson of the Supremes), and live coverage of the dinner was broadcast on radio station WMRY.

Page moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s to be with family, and he passed away there in 1979 at the age of 80 (although some official documents list birth dates for him that would have made him in his later 80s).

In sum, Page’s philosophy on presenting New Orleans with the best the national pastime had to offer was illustrated in an interview he gave to the Pittsburgh Courier in 1944 for an article about a trio of blockbuster Negro Leagues games he’d booked for that fall. Page said:

“[A]ll three of these games are of big league caliber and will go over great in New Orleans, the biggest and best sports town in the South. The fans here have been so loyal and enthusiastic that I would not be doing them justice if I did not bring in the best teams and players possible.”

Now, as the 2021 Major League Baseball season unfolds and the nation gears up for more pennant races and the best the modern American pastime has to offer, the Negro Leagues enter a new era of fame and recognition.

However, Doswell urged caution and measured optimism when it comes to celebrating the Negro Leagues’ new presence in the Major League record books. He said much work still needs to be done in terms completing the accumulation, evaluation and integration of the complete statistical record of the Negro Leagues into that of Major League Baseball.

Doswell said much of segregation-era Black baseball’s statistical record needs to be uncovered and compiled. As a result of shoddy record keeping and spotty media coverage, countless Negro Leagues games and league standings have remained incomplete and hidden in history; what statistics that have been found and compiled so far are the results of the tireless investigative efforts of a handful of dogged researchers.

Also remaining to be ascertained and agreed upon is the exact process by which Negro Leagues stats will be officially and mathematically integrated in the MLB record books.

As a result, while MLB’s historic announcement last December was certainly cause for celebration, Doswell said, there is still much, much to yet be done — just as in American society as a whole. The nation, including its national pastime, continues to suffer the repercussions of racial oppression.

“I applaud Major League Baseball for recognizing that the fuller recognition of the Negro Leagues has been a gross oversight for many years,” he said. “They have begun the path of correcting that with this announcement. Still, the decision is nuanced, fluid and not a cut and dry decision or conclusion, because so much on the data side of this question has been lost to history. That’s part of the story of segregation in America.

“There are many historians who have been diligently working to piece more material together,” he added, “but we may never have a complete statistical record of even the finite scope of years this decision encompasses (1920-1948). As [MLB’s official historian] John Thorn told me, ‘History is a process, not a product.’ This story is ever evolving. We won’t have the satisfaction of turning to a book source to settle all bar bets and arguments on baseball history, but the Negro Leagues are now, as they should have always been, a greater part of the conversation.”

Leslie Heaphy

Rodney Page, son of New Orleans businessman and baseball kingpin Allen Page, expressed similar thoughts as Doswell’s. But he added that, as he can personally attest, those involved in the Negro Leagues in many ways never needed the validation of mainstream white America to remind them of Black baseball’s brilliance.

Rodney said that for him, as for the dwindling number of living Negro Leaguers and the descendants of the Black baseball legends of yesteryear, the Negro Leagues were and have always been great, imbued with the pride of those who toiled, then as now, to persevere and thrive despite the prejudice and oppression at Jim Crow’s hands.

“As a young boy growing up in New Orleans, and the Negro League environment, I always heard and remember the term ‘Negro Major League Baseball,’” Page said. “I’m not sure when the emphasis changed to just Negro Leagues. But, for me, it has always been Negro Major League Baseball. Those I grew up around, the players, managers, coaches and other officials, defined themselves as Negro Major League Baseball. They knew their worth, excellence and significance. Self-definition is a powerful tonic and statement of self-worth.

“Major League Baseball’s acknowledgment represents atonement and proper recognition for the Negro Leagues contributions to the game of baseball and our country,” Page added. “It is not just baseball history or Black history — it’s American history. The great work and consistent, bulldog determination of Negro League historians and researchers made it possible. Their efforts keep alive the memories, faces, and voices of so many who have gone before and remain worthy of remembrance and recognition.”

New book celebrates Hoosier hero John Merida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muncie Evening Press, Sept. 3, 1902

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indianapolis Freeman, July 11, 1908

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New novel explores link between baseball and blues

Michael Lortz’s new novel about baseball, blues and one’s soul.

Editor’s note: Baseball and the Blues. Are there any greater American creations? Nay, I say, and first-time author Michael Lortz has merged these two cultural pillars with his excellent new novel, “Curveball at the Crossroads.” The book unspools the story of JaMark Reliford, a young baseball pitcher who faces the premature end of a promising career and who, subsequently, receives an offer that might repair his arm but also take his soul.

Although “Curveball at the Crossroads” isn’t directly about the Negro Leagues, it reverberates with many of the themes that I attempt to critique on this blog — race, fame, legend and achievement — and that resonate with the future of baseball among the African-American community. In this lightly edited email interview, Michael and I discuss such topics, with a focus on the baseball and the Blues intersect and influence one another. People who know me know I love the Blues — it’s my favorite musical genre, especially Delta Blues — making Michael’s book a must-read for me and anyone else whose passions include the Blues and baseball.

Ryan Whirty: Where did the idea for the book come from? Describe how you developed the idea as a book project?

Michael Lortz: The idea for the book originated in 2012 when I wrote a short story that was basically the beginning and the end — a pitcher hurts his arm, makes a deal with the Devil, and has a confrontation. It was only five pages and was very influenced by Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I sent the story to several friends who told me it needed more. They said there was a concept that could be further explored and that I should get to writing. At the time, I was working as a government contractor in Afghanistan and after working my 12 hours a day, I had a lot of free time. And I missed baseball. So I dove into the creative world of my own baseball universe.

Michael Lortz

I put the story aside for a while when I went back to grad school. I edited a few scenes, but didn’t give it much thought. Then I sent it to Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports. Jay has been a good writing friend for a long time. He had some great suggestions and it wasn’t until the world slowed down during the pandemic that I was finally able to incorporate some of Jay’s suggestions and have a project I felt suitable to send to publishers.

As far as how the project was developed, I had the beginning and the climax already written from the short story. I like to say I had A and W written. The next part was filling in the rest of the story, the character development, the supporting characters, the dialogue, and the post-climax aftermath. That was definitely a creative challenge.

RW: How did popular folk tales and oral tradition about the history and development of the blues — especially the country blues tales found in the Delta — influence you to create a similar story, but for baseball? 

ML: I have been a Delta blues fan for well over 20 years. I made a journey to Memphis and Clarksdale in 2009, a few years before I started the book, that had a profound impact on my understanding of the genre. It went from music that influenced the rock I listened to, to a people that I knew and talked to. When you visit Memphis and then make that drive down to Clarksdale, Miss., and go to the Crossroads, there is a feeling there that is palpable. It is one of the poorest regions in America, but one that created a type of music that has an impact to this day. Visiting there helped me understand the paths that Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, BB King and so many more traveled. I was deep in both music and American social history.

The Crossroads at US 61 and US 49, Clarksdale.

Along with my trip to Clarksdale and Memphis, I also lived near the Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee, Fla. It is one of the last remaining juke joints in the South and an absolute gem of a place to see live music. It is a small club hidden deep in the woods outside of town. That idea that there is a crossroads and a small historical building nearby plays a big role in the book. As a matter of fact, I visited Tallahassee when the book was in early development. I thought it would be a good idea to swing by the Bradfordville Blues Club. While there, I pulled out my laptop and started working on the story. To this day, I swear I felt the spirits of the blues. I knew then I was on to something good. 

RW: When it comes to essential American creations and cultural foundations, the blues and baseball are two of the most prominent and fundamental. How do the histories of the two cultural pillars mirror each other, and where might they intersect?

ML: It is interesting to compare baseball to the Blues. While we can look at baseball’s predominant demographic of white men over 50 years of age and see their connections to the blues-influenced rock of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, these two pillars of Americana definitely go much deeper. Neither of these creations would be where they are today without the direct influence of African Americans. It is nearly impossible to tell the story of baseball or the blues without them even before the Civil Rights Movement. In music, we have Elvis taking so much from his Memphis roots, and in baseball, we have Dizzy Dean and others admiring the work of Satchel Paige and the Negro Leagues, watching what they were doing and learning.

I like your use of “fundamental” in this question. It leads me to think about the conservativeness of baseball and the blues. Each of these creations has rules that guide their rhythm. For baseball, it is the numbers — nine innings, three outs, three strikes, nine batters, nine fielders. There is a measured rhythm. Hence its fascination with statistics. Baseball is not as random, chaotic and uncontrolled as basketball, hockey or soccer. But in the measured world of baseball, there is always a story of people. Of winning and of defeat.

The blues is very similar. The blues is not a very complex musical genre. Twelve-bars, a few chords, a basic beat. The blues is almost as simple of a musical genre as we have in America. Stay in the rules or else it is not the traditional blues. But like baseball, in that measured element, is a story about people. Of winning and of defeat.

Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the Devil.

And we have seen people be very protective of the rules of both baseball and the blues. Almost to a fault. Baseball purists are very protective of the game. Blues purists are very much the same. You look at someone like Gary Clark Jr. pushing the limits of the blues and adding elements of soul and rock and hip-hop. Gary Clark Jr. is still very much the blues, even if he does a remix with rappers — which I can go on about a lot of hip-hop having much of the blues feeling as well. Meanwhile, in baseball, Fernando Tatis Jr. or Jose Bautista flipping his bat after a performance is not unlike Buddy Guy swinging a guitar around his neck or playing with his teeth. Showmanship isn’t something as routine in baseball as it in other sports, such as football or basketball. But maybe that needs to change.

As a writer, especially as a white male writer, I had to take all of this into consideration when writing “Curveball at the Crossroads.” As you know, my protagonist, JaMark Reliford, is Black. His family is Black. The folklore from which the story evolves is from Black culture. Just as I had to be detailed in my understanding of baseball nuances, I also had to be detailed in my understanding of blues folklore. Rightly, we live in a time when being authentic matters. From the nuances of the Delta to the nuances of a clubhouse, I had to be as detailed and correct as possible. I hope I did a good job with that.

RW: While the concept of “selling your soul to the devil” is perhaps most prominent in blues lore, the basic tale is found in just about all American pursuits. Why and how does it fit in with baseball and success at the sport?

ML: The most obvious answer to this is the steroids issue that plagued baseball throughout the early 2000s. Was the juice worth the squeeze for Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and many others? While they have amazing stats, the Devil could be that they might never see Hall of Fame recognition for their accomplishments.

“Neither of these creations would be where they are today without the direct influence of African Americans. It is nearly impossible to tell the story of baseball or the blues without them even before the Civil Rights Movement.”

As odd as it might seem, I never thought about steroids as the Devil until someone brought it up to me after the book was published. I was so into the Devil as a literal figure and not a figurative one that I was oblivious to the comparison. But it does make sense, although I am leery to make a direct comparison of JaMark Reliford to Roger Clemens, for example.

I also think there is something to be said about the commitment to the game that could be a Devil. The cost in travel and time and family in order to live that athlete lifestyle or make that athlete money. When it is all over, will there be a happy ending — both physically and mentally? What if playing professional baseball only means getting stuck in the Minor Leagues for 10 years with low pay in run-down stadiums?

RW: Aside from the blues influences, were there any actual people, places and/or events from which you drew inspiration? 

ML: Many. “Curveball at the Crossroads” is full of inspirations. As a matter of fact, that was probably the most fun part of writing the story. As the book was started in 2012, David Price‘s career was a huge influence on the career arch of JaMark Reliford. Dwight Gooden was an inspiration for JaMark’s repertoire of fastballs and curveballs (Gooden of course faced his own Devil through addiction, but that might be a whole other story). JaMark’s first Minor League manager drew inspiration from a sergeant I had during my time in the Army, a careerist with a no-nonsense approach to developing personnel. Dusty Polichardo, JaMark’s coach and friend, drew influence from Fernando Valenzuela and Tommy Lasorda. As I mentioned in an earlier question, Memphis, Clarksdale and the Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee definitely inspired me. The book is also full of announcer’s voices, where people such as Bob Costas, the Orioles’ Gary Thorne, who I grew up listening to, the Rays’ Andy Freed and Dave Wills, and my friends in Tampa radio were big influences. I was lucky enough to have two Tampa people, former Rays pre-game voice Steve Carney and news radio host Mabili Patro, provide their voices for the Curveball at the Crossroads youtube trailer

The Bradfordville Blues Club.

There are also many Easter Eggs throughout the book. There is a Snoop Dogg lyric, a reference to pro wrestling’s Iron Sheik, a Pee-Wee Herman reference, a Star Wars reference, a Casey at the Bat reference, a Field of Dreams reference, a Curious Case of Sidd Finch reference, and of course many, many Blues references. For example, it is not a spoiler for me to mention that JaMark Reliford shares a birthday with Robert Johnson.

The ending was also greatly inspired by a modern sports legend, but I don’t want to say more than that.

What was your goal in writing the book, and what is your hope for the impact it may have on the public and on the evolution of American folklore?

My goal is to make a ton of money and be able to retire after one book. I think that is the goal of every first time novelist. Of course, I don’t think that is going to happen. But I do hope my book can hold its own against other great baseball stories. I would like JaMark Reliford to be in the same pantheon as Sidd Finch, Roy Hobbs, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez and many other famous fictional baseball players. By combining these two American standards, I hope the book appeals to a wide audience. I hope it interests baseball fans in Blues folklore and interests Blues folklorists into different ideas for deals with the Devil.

I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious as a white writer, but I also hope “Curveball at the Crossroads” can play a small role in reconnecting the Black community with baseball. African-American players make up a very small percentage of Major League Baseball players. Many of the best athletes from African-American communities are not playing baseball, either because of cost — travel baseball, etc., is very expensive — or because of lack of interest. I wrote my book because I thought it was a good story. In a way, “Curveball at the Crossroads” is my ode to baseball and the blues. It is my way of giving back to those communities and sharing my love for these pillars of American culture. If “Curveball at the Crossroads” encourages an increased love of baseball or Blues folklore in anyone, white or Black or any other background, I will be elated.

For more information about “Curveball at the Crossroads,” including reviews and how to buy a copy — go here. Thank you so much to Michael Lortz for approaching me about this gem of literary fiction.

Wright’s daughter remembers trailblazer on his birthday

John Wright in later life. Photo courtesy of Carlis Robinson.

Born in segregated New Orleans on Nov. 28, 1916 — exactly 104 years ago today — John, or Johnny, Wright rose through his school years in the Crescent City — some reports say he graduated from Hoffman High, others say McDonogh No. 35 — to become a professional pitcher for many years, beginning in the mid-1930s with the New Orleans Zulus and including big-league stints with the Toledo Crawfords and Newark Eagles and, most famously, the mighty Homestead Grays, for whom he served as an ace of the pitching staff in the 1940s, when the Grays were at their dynastic heights.

Wright — who was known as “Needlenose” by many fellow players, and as “Hoss” by his family — served in the Navy during World War II, playing for a service team at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station to entertain fellow sailors and soldiers, returning to his professional career at the end of the war.

Things then took an incredible career turn, when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to a pro contract in January 1946, just three months after the Bums brought Jackie Robinson on board. The move made Wright, a hard-throwing righty known for pinpoint control, the second African-American player in Organized Baseball in the modern era.

The sky seemed to be the limit, but the lanky, unassuming Southerner — whom journalist Wendell Smith called “personal and likeable” in a column, and who was described by writer Joe Bostic as “[t]aciturn, almost to the point of complete silence” — struggled when given his chance in the spotlight, failing to make the Dodgers’ major-league roster and being demoted down through Brooklyn’s farm system. In particular, contemporaneous reports related that his famous pitch control flagged when trying out for the Dodgers and their farm system.

Johnny Wright

By 1947, Wright was back with the Grays, where he starred for several more years, and hopped around other clubs, including several in Latin America. He retired from baseball in the mid-1950s and moved back to his hometown, where he worked for the National Gypsum Company for many years before retiring. He lived in New Orleans for most of the rest of his life, only moving in his later years to Jackson, Miss., to live with his daughter and receive treatment for his flagging health. He died there on May 4, 1990.

Theories abound as to why John Wright couldn’t quite make it on the big stage; some observers felt his formative years in Jim Crow Louisiana made his shift to a white team and integrated situation jarring for him, while other pundits believe that, quite simply, he wilted under the scrutinous baseball microscope, unable to adjust the the intense pressure.

“Wright was a good pitcher,” wrote Hall of Famer and longtime Grays teammate Buck Leonard. “He had a good curveball and everything and could throw the ball over the plate. He was as good as Joe Black, or maybe even better. …

“Johnny Wright had the ability to play in the major leagues, but that was only one part of it,” Buck added. “There was something else, too. Robinson stood up under the pressure and Wright didn’t. He just wasn’t able to stand the pressure and couldn’t take the things he had to take. I don’t think many people could have or would have.”

To judge Wright for his inability to stay in Organized Baseball should in no way be used to judge him harshly; as Buck indicated, the pressure bearing down on John and Jackie was unimaginable and severe, which in my mind is more a testament to Robinson’s own sheer will, grit and determination and less a reflection on Wright’s character or ability.

I recently came across an article by reporter Lisa Fitterman from March 1995 in the Montreal Gazette newspaper in which she evaluates the brief tenure Wright and another African-American pitcher signed by the Dodgers, Roy Partlow, spent with the Trois-Rivieres Royaux (Three Rivers Royals) of the Can-Am League in 1946. In the article, Fitterman sums up the grueling experience the New Orleans lad faced in Organized Baseball.

“Single, uneducated, prone to hurt feelings, accustomed to being called Jim Crow, a derogatory term first used in the 19th century to describe blacks, and to strict segregation in the U.S. South, Wright was not the best of candidates to toss into the ring with the lions,” she wrote.

Buck Leonard

But harshly judging Wright based on a single baseball season is unfair and just plain incorrect. In addition to starring and serving in the Navy, Wright posted a longer, arguably better career in the Negro Leagues than Jackie. Wright was the ace pitcher of one of the greatest baseball dynasties of all time, playing alongside greats like Leonard, Josh Gibson, Jud Wilson, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Vic Harris and Sam Bankhead.

John Wright was, quite simply, excellent, and it’s time he be remembered as such. His absence from several halls of fame — especially the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame — is criminal and needs to be corrected. Now.

For those of us baseball history researchers and enthusiasts, Wright is nothing less than a brave trailblazer, one who gave his absolute all for the sport he loved and excelled at, one whose courageous efforts helped open the door for integration and justice. In New Orleans, he is a legend, the equal of other Louisiana-Born Negro League stars like Oliver Marcell, Dave Malarcher and Willard Brown.

Today is Johnny’s birthday, and one person who does remember him is Carlis Robinson, Wright’s daughter. (No relation to Jackie.) Carlis is one of four children of John and his wife, Mildred. Carlis grew up with her family in New Orleans, graduating from McDonogh 35 High School before graduating from business college. She retired in 2018 as a registrar in the Fort Bend Independent School District.

Chicago Defender, Feb. 9, 1946

Carlis is the last surviving child of John and Mildred; she now lives in Texas. Carlis works to keep her father’s memory and legacy alive, and she and I connected on Facebook recently. In recognition of her dad’s birthday, I asked her about her memories of John as a father and family man, and how her father regarded his baseball career as he got older.

Below is the short email interview:

RW: How would you describe your father and his personality? What were some of the things that were important to him?

CR: My dad was mild mannered and very laid back. He loved family, friends, food and drink. There was always someone in his home. Later in life, especially after retirement he loved fishing. 

RW: Did your father talk much about his baseball career? How did he view his time in professional baseball, including his days playing for New Orleans teams, the Grays and the Dodgers organization?

CR: He never brought it up when we talked, but if I would ask a question, he would respond. He felt very blessed to have had the opportunity to play in the Negro Leagues and to have played with and against some of the very best. He didn’t complain about not staying with the Dodgers’ organization. Instead, he continued playing in the Negro Leagues and winning championships.

RW: How did he view his baseball career? Did he look back on them fondly?

CR: He spoke fondly of the other players and held them in high regards. Several of them continued to correspond with him even after he left the game. He told me that he had no regrets because he had his chance. I found out after his death that he had memorabilia and shared stories with his physical therapist while recuperating at home. He was proud of his career and accomplishments.

RW: What do you think defined him as a father, and what are some of your biggest memories of him as a dad?

CR: My parents divorced when I was very young. I am the youngest and only surviving child. Therefore he wasn’t always around. But if you were able to speak with my two oldest siblings, you would probably get a different answer. They were born during the peak of our dad’s baseball career. However, daddy was around for those special occasions in my life such as baptisms and graduations, etc. My family and I visited him whenever we were in town. My best memories are when he used to take me (as a kid) to the park to watch him practice baseball. That was daddy and me time. 

RW: How important were his roots and time in his hometown of New Orleans to him?

CR: Very important. He entertained a lot at home and seldom traveled. My grandparents only lived a block away. I suppose that he had traveled enough between the Navy and baseball in both the summer and winter leagues.

RW: What do you think your father was proudest of, both in terms of baseball and his personal life?

CR: In baseball he was viewed somewhat as a celebrity locally when he was signed with the Dodger’s Montreal farm team. Personally he owned his own home. And bragging on his kids. 

Amsterdam News, Nov. 24, 1945

RW: Did he talk much about his time in the Navy? How important was his time in the service to him?

CR: Daddy was proud of his service. He said that he learned Spanish through his travels. He also played baseball for the Navy team.

RW: What are the things you most remember and treasure about him and his life? What do you think is his legacy, in terms of baseball, life after baseball, and as a father and family man?

CR: The memories all over the place. His nickname was “Hoss.” But I was always “Lil Chicken.” It makes me smile to this day. Dad always had something for you to eat, and he was probably the smoothest person I know in speaking slang. He left some items from his career and travels.  Those gave me a different perspective of John Wright, husband and father.

Our family may have not been traditional, but as a family we had some good times when we all got together. That’s what I will always remember. As for his legacy, truly the second Black man signed to a major league team should never be forgotten. Somehow his story has been lost.

I still don’t understand why his home state has not inducted him into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. I came across a book entitled “NEGRO YEAR BOOK.” The preface of the book speaks about how it includes prominent Negroes of the time. John Wright was listed in the book. And when I contacted the MLB organization, they emailed around 85 pages of information about him.

Many thanks to Carlis for taking time to speak with me for this post. I’m very grateful for any and all help and input I receive working on Home Plate Don’t Move.

Despite his struggles in organized baseball, Wright possessed a character that was quiet, humble, hard-working and optimistic. He was a committed family man who always dedicated himself to his team and his sport — whether it be at McDonogh 35, Newark, Pittsburgh, Latin America, Quebec or the Great Lakes Navy Base — his entire life, a life that has garnered respect, admiration and a lasting legacy as a baseball legend.

Pittsburgh Courier, Feb. 9, 1946

To wrap up this article about Johnny Wright, here’s a couple quotes from late winter 1946 from a pair of columns from Baltimore Afro-American columnist Sam Lacy, a personal hero of mine. The comments reflect why Johnny Wright is a hero in his own right and deserves to be recognized as such.

Here’s the first excerpt, in Lacy’s words, from March 1946:

“Wright, too, is doing a fine job of pioneering. Like Jackie, he has asked nothing from the other men on the squad.

“He has taken his gruelling [sic] running chores without a whimper, has worked seemingly endless sessions of covering first base from the pitching mound. He has chased bunts and sweated flies in the outfield, all with the zeal of determination that sooner or later must pay dividends.

“Wright doesn’t boast the college background that is Jackie’s, but he possesses something equally as valuable — a level head and a knack of seeing things objectively. He’s a realist in a role which demands divorce from sentimentality.”

Here’s the second quote, spoken by Wright himself to Lacy in February 1946. His words reflect his belief that regardless of how he fares in his own career, other players of color who follow will benefit from the trails that he, and Jackie, were blazing:

“I feel that there will be more and colored boys getting a chance in professional sports now that the first step has been taken. I expect to keep trying to do my very best, because I know I only got this far by plugging.”

Appendix:

If you have a few extra minutes, here’s the text from an article in the Feb. 9, 1946, issue of the Louisiana Weekly that came out the week after Dodgers GM Branch Rickey signed John Wright to a contract:

“Sports fans and citizens were elated to learn of the announcement last week by Hector Racine, president of the Montreal Royals Brooklyn Dodger farm team, that John Wright, 1705 St. Peter St., is the first native New Orleans Negro to be signed to play ball with a major league club.

“Wright, this week, began his preliminary workouts and training on the Xavier University diamond.

“Upon being interviewed, Wright said: ‘I am very happy to be the second Negro that will have an opportunity to play major league ball. I will do my utmost to come through and I wish to thank all of my friends who have been pulling for me.’

“Wright was recently discharged from the Navy. While at the Navy’s Great Lakes Training Center in 1944, he was a member of the first all-Negro varsity in the history of the Navy. In the same year he helped to win the Mid-western Service Championship.

“In 1945, Wright transferred to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he won the third Naval District Championship. He was also a member of the Floyd Bennett Naval Air Force team.

“Wright has been playing since 1932 when he was a member of the Hoffman High School team. John says that the greatest thrill of his baseball was when he defeated the Chicago White Sox by the score of 9-0 last year. He also has a victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. His last game against a major league club was with the Boston Red Sox.

“After about four weeks of training here, Wright will leave for Florida in March where he will join Jackie Robinson of Los Angeles, the first Negro to sign [a National] League contract. E.J. Ducy and J.B. Spencer, two prominent Negro ball players, are working out with Wright at Xavier.”

The San Jacinto Club in New Orleans

The sign from the San Jacinto Club, now on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. (Photo by the author.)

I do solemnly promise to abide by the Charter, By-Laws, Constitution, Rules, Etc., governing the San Jacinto Social and Pleasure Club for the promotion of its welfare to the best of my ability, so help me God.

Members’ Oath for the San Jacinto

In kind of a spinoff on my earlier series about Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9 and Eddie “Kid” Brown, I’ve been wanting to post something about one of the places at which Brown engaged in some of his boxing matches, the San Jacinto Club.

One of the many social aid and pleasure clubs that were scattered throughout New Orleans over the last 200 years — the most famous probably being the still-going-strong Zulu Club — the San Jacinto was a facility and an organization that encapsulated just about every facet of African-American life in New Orleans in the early- and mid-20th century.

As such, it became one of the cornerstones in the Black community in the Big Easy; not only did it offer social service programs, but it also provided athletic, educational, political, activist and fellowship opportunities for African Americans who’d been shut out from segregated white society.

In a way, then, it was very much like Negro League baseball — and, in fact, the San Jacinto Club periodically fielded a baseball team that took on other amateur, club and semipro Black squads in New Orleans.

But more on that a bit later.

Courtesy Amistad Research Center.

The club’s philosophy was outlined in its charter, which was issued Nov. 7, 1905, with legal approval from Orleans Parish District Attorney James Porter Parker and notarization by public notary Robert Legier. Stated Article II of the charter:

“The objects and purposes for which this corporation is organized are hereby declared to be the cultivation of literature and science by the establishment and general increase of a library, of well assorted and standard books for the free use of of the members of the club, by the establishment of a reading room, supplied with the leading periodicals, magazines, reviews and newspapers of the day, whether scientific, literary or political, to be opened at all suitable hours of the evening, to the use of the members of the club and their guests, without special charge therefor [sic], and secondly, the regulation of social intercourse and amusement among the members of the club, by rules framed after consultation and by mutual consent, to promote enjoyment, harmony and refinement of manners, intellectual improvement and the moral, mental and material welfare of the members.”

The charter named the club’s first slate of officers: W.R. Dubuclet, president; Edward Brugier, first vice president; Charles Stanberry, second vice president; George DeGruy, recording secretary; M.R. Roudez, financial secretary; and A.B. Callioux, treasurer. Callioux, meanwhile, was a painter.)

(I did some cursory research on those gentlemen, and all them were skilled or professional tradesmen, which reflects the type of middle-class Creoles whom were sought by clubs like the SJC. Both Dubuclet and Roudez were coopers. Brugier and worked as a porter, while Stanberry was also a railroad freight handler. DeGruy worked as either a tailor or bricklayer; I couldn’t pin that down for sure.

The entrance to the San Jacinto Club, circa 1920s. (Photo by Villard Paddio, from the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.)

The club constitution was adopted concurrently with the charter and further established the by-laws, rules and regulations, including an age requirement (members must be between 18 and 60 years old); an admission fee of 50 cents, and monthly dues of 50 cents (or about $12 today); and a monthly regular meeting and an assessment meeting.

Then, the club by-laws also provided the authority of a club committee to establish the athletic program, which eventually included boxing teams and matches, as well as baseball teams. Stated Article XIV:

“This committee shall be composed of five members to be appointed by the President whose duty it shall be to take charge of everything pertaining to Athletics in which this club may be interested to promote contests and make rules governing same among the members and to see that all paraphernalia belonging to this department is always in good condition. A written agreement must be signed by the two presidents before any article is rented from the club so as to know who to hold responsible for said article.”

(At the end of this post I include some more details about the club constitution that reveal and highlight the importance the San Jacinto — like other such social aid and pleasure clubs in New Orleans — placed on honor, education, uplift and community wellness.)

Now, a basic history … Organized in 1903 and incorporated two years later, the club swelled to more than a thousand members — mostly middle-to-upper-class Creoles of color — and found its permanent location at 1422 Dumaine St. by the Twenties or so, and in 1922 it opened a sprawling, completely refurbished clubhouse at that spot in the Treme neighborhood. The two-story structure included office space; a ballroom, dance floor and concert auditorium with a 3,000-person capacity; a reading room and library with 2,000 books; a bar and social club; and a gymnasium.

The opening of the resplendent structure received significant press in the national media, including the Chicago Defender, whose Nov. 2, 1922, issue regaled the paper’s readers with a lush description of the New Orleans black community’s new jewel. The paper stated that San Jacinto members “are exhibiting their new club quarters with much pride. They claim that there is nothing else like it in the country.”

“Today 112 feet through the city block of Dumaine street, between Marais and North Villare streets,” the paper added, “has risen the San Jacinto’s new home. Two stories above the basement, which has been built into a large and handsome dancing floor and club hall, rests the most complete and modern Colored club house in the entire South, and equaled by few in the far North.

“Here in new and shining quarters, at their hands every modern convenience to facilitate their work and pleasures as well, the hundreds of men who are members of the San Jacinto can find comfort a plenty.”

The library of the club, circa 1920s. (Photo by Villard Paddio, courtesy of the Hogan Jazz Archive.)

An example of the club’s political activism and social-awareness campaigns took place in February 1930, during Eddie Brown’s early boxing heyday at the San Jacinto. Late that month, “a monster mass meeting” slated at the club building to organize a push against oppressive Jim Crow voting laws that robbed thousands of Black Louisianians of the vote. Reported the Feb. 22, 1930, Louisiana Weekly:

“At this meeting plans will be gone into and discussed concerning retaining an attorney to represent the group in attacting [sic] the damnable registration law as it is existing in the state at the present time.

“Speakers of the various civic organizations will address those who are present, and as this subject is a vital one, every one is requested to be present.”

The San Jacinto Club had deep pockets to fund all of this activity and to build and maintain its mansion-like clubhouse — by 1926, the club held assets of about $83,000 (real estate, equipment and cash balance), or roughly $1.2 million in today’s dollars.

Most contemporaneous and modern sources report that the San Jacinto was best known, locally and nationally, as a music venue that for three decades hosted balls, dances and concerts that attracted the best of New Orleans Black society. Countless musical acts played at the hall over the years, from early jazz bands in the 1920s to blues shouters like Ray Charles and Big Mama Thornton and local legends like Professor Longhair, Smiley Lewis, Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew and his scorching band. The hall also hosted recording sessions, most notably jazz greats like Bunk Johnson, who had influenced Louis Armstrong.

There was more, too, according to a Web site by radio station WWOZ (itself a New Orleans institution), making the club a locus of African-American life:

“Often, other black social organizations and promoters rented the hall to put them on — it was one of only a few venues of its size for black audiences under segregation. There were dances, balls, soirees, and battles of the bands. Baby Dolls and Mardi Gras Indians, groups who mask for Carnival, held functions here, too. For decades, the space was central to black social life in downtown New Orleans.

“The building was put to other uses during daylight hours. The traditional brass band drummer Lawrence Batiste told documentarian David Kunian that his backyard abutted the club, so he copped free lessons by listening to bands rehearse there during the day. The American Federation of Musicians Local 496 — the black musicians union — held meetings in the hall in the 40s before establishing its office on North Claiborne Avenue.”

Over the years, a slew of other events, soirees, gatherings and fundraisers took place at the San Jacinto Club, including commemorations of the efforts of free Creoles of color in the Andrew Jackson-led Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812; meetings and fundraisers of the League for Civil Rights and Justice; banquets of the Merry Makers Social and Pleasure Club; and anniversary dances of the Dukes of Windsor Club.

The club’s occupancy of 1422 Dumaine St. continued until 1957, when the structure was vacated by the San Jacintos. The site then went through other uses, such as a nightclub, until the structure was purchased by the city, then destroyed by fire in January 1967. The building was bulldozed and eyed as a possible site for a cultural center. However, eventually the location — and several city blocks around it — became what is today the famed Louis Armstrong Park straddling the French Quarter and Treme.

Cornerstones and other portions of the San Jacinto Club structure have been saved, however, including the hall’s iconic sign, which today is on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

The boxing ring/gymnasium. (Photo by Villard Paddio, courtesy the Hogan Jazz Archive.)

But there’s something else significant to note: the San Jacinto Club not only hosted some of the best “colored” boxing in the South, it had its own athletic teams, including boxing clubs for various age groups.

As outlined in my previous posts about the Secret 9, multi-sport athlete Eddie Brown laced up the gloves for a little neighborhood pugilism at the San Jacinto, but an army of other fighters stepped into the ring at the club.

I’ve obviously previously noted Eddie “Kid” Brown’s appearance in the San Jacinto ring, and I’ll highlight a few other pugilistic encounters around the same time Brown was at his peak. One comes from 1932 — I think it does, but I was a knucklehead and didn’t write the date on the hard copy I have — when the Louisiana Weekly reported on a multi-bout card at the club, the spectators at which displayed the typical liveliness and passion as they crowded around the ring.

The newspaper, as well as the crowd, dissed the top fight on the card, a frustrating draw between Young Jack Davis and Angelo Brown. The publication wrote that the Brown-Davis scuffle “topped a good card at the downtown club. Except for the main bout, which was roundly booed by the crowd, the other decisions were favorably received.”

Louisiana Weekly, Oct. 3, 1936

The article then states that “[a]fter the fights the large crowd wended its way down to the night club dance held in the club’s spacious dance hall and given by the boxers and gym boys.” Such a multi-stage, multi-activity slate of entertainment was common for clubs like the San Jacinto, but this club, whose building covered a full city block, had everything under the same roof, amazingly.

The Jan. 16, 1932, issue of the Weekly reported on a similarly boisterous card of fights at around the same time. The paper was sure to relate the sentiments of the spectators in the San Jacinto arena:

“A card of exhibition bouts were well booed at the San Jacinto arena Sunday evening, when all but two were converted into petting parties, the fighters embracing and patting each other affectionately upon the cheeks. …

“If the card was saved the credit rightfully belongs to Young George Godfrey and Chester Jones, two guys who would run the chance of starving just to fight. …

“And, oh boy, what a performance they gave. They mixed it willingly all the way, slugging, boxing and furnishing delicious dessert for a sour meal. The crowd went wild when the hands of both were hoisted, giving them a well-earned draw.”

Or in July 1936, the San Jacinto Club was ground zero for the launch of an ambitious venture in regional pugilism — a training academy and amatuer boxing tournament led by a local promoter, Jackie Elverillo. Stated the Weekly:

“What might be considered the greatest accomplishment in the local sports world in many years by any individual is the progress of the amateur boxing game revived here some months ago by one well known young man who is a professional fighter by trade and answers to the name of Jackie Elverillo. Elverillo, with his battling grounds in the San Jacinto A.C., has done remarkably well with his 25 or 30 ambitious fight-craving young men whom he trains daily. Jackie has done so well that he has worked up an inter-city amateur boxing tournament with Houston, Texas to be staged here in New Orleans … If this affair proves a success it will be known as the Negro Southern AAU Boxing Tournament.

“As it is Elverillo’s desire to have the best amateurs available to represent this proud Creole City, he will stage a city-wide elimination tournament in the San Jacinto Club that will run three Sundays. …”

The club’s boxing activity also played a significant role in the summer of 1938, when the San Jacinto launched a massive expansion and improvement campaign after a down period of dwindling membership and sagging finances. Now at the club, according to the July 9, 1938, Louisiana Weekly, “many debts left by previous administrations have been taken care of and the club is on an upward trend. …

“A huge drive is on now to swell its membership and among other improvements, the famous San Jacinto Arena, which saw the making of many top-notch fighters, has been enlarged to seat 2000 people. Paul Gray, fight manager, is the general manager of the arena and gymnasium, and A. Graber is [the] boxing instructor. Regular weekly boxing shows will be conducted.”

Testifying to the complete social and cultural experience the San Jacinto (as well as other social aid and benevolent organizations in the city) offered its members and the community at large, the newspaper added that the facility also “houses a reading room and has a large auditorium where dances are held, many big orchestras of the country having appeared there. It also has large reception parlors.”

Undated ad, 1922

But coming back to the subject of this blog — Black baseball history, of course — here’s an overview of the hardball program offered now and again by the San Jacinto Club. While America’s pastime wasn’t nearly as big as boxing at the club, and while there’s much less record of the San Jacintos’ baseball exploits, there are some accounts of their games.

In September 1916, for example, the San Jacinto’s baseball aggregation worked its way into the pages of the Chicago Defender, which reported the club’s five-inning, 4-3 win (rain shortened it) over the Lion Baseball Club, which the paper called “a fast and clever game that was marked by sensational fielding. …

“The largest crowd of the season turned out to see the two teams play at the Fair Ground’s Jockey Club. The feature of the game was Woods’ stealing home with the winning run. The San Jacinto Club has won 25 and lost 5 games this season.”

Although it was a rare occurrence, the club’s hardball team popped up in the city’s daily newspapers, such as in June 1921, when the New Orleans Item ran a brief about the San Jacintos’ 10-8 loss to the Crescent Stars at Crescent Park. “One of the biggest crowds of the season witnessed the game,” the Item reported. 

Then, in June 1922, a newspaper ad trumpeted an upcoming doubleheader at Bissant’s Park; Corpus Christi squared off against the home San Jacinto Club in the first scrum, with the Bissant Giants to play the winner in the nightcap. (I’m not sure if the park and team with the Bissant moniker is related to the great Bissant family, a prominent Black family in New Orleans that featured several outstanding, accomplished athletes, most notably John Bissant, who starred in multiple high school sports — most prominently baseball, football and track — before shining at local colleges. John’s athletic career culminated with stints with the Birmingham Black Barons and the Chicago American Giants in the 1930’s and ’40s.)

The 1930 season seems to have been a busy one for the San Jacinto men. In April of that year, the squad clobbered the St. Raymond Giants church team, 21-7. I’m going to quote the news brief in the Louisiana Weekly about the game, and just as a matter of probable obviousness, one of the names in the article is a coincidence. The paper stated:

“Led on by Cy Young [not that Cy Young, of course], who cracked out three thriples [sic] and a single in four trips to the plate, the San Jacinto Club nine walloped the Saint Raymond Giants by a record 21-7 score, last Sunday. Bob Mannee poled out a homer fro [sic] the New Orleans team, while Godo smashed one for the Saints.”

A month later, the San Jacintos made the short road trip to LaPlace, La. (maybe maybe 30 miles to the west of New Orleans), where they schooled the hometown White Sox, 9-3. Per the Weekly:

“‘Squatty’ Washington mastered LaPlace’s White Sox the second consecutive time, when he took ’em over 9-3 Sunday afternoon.

“The little right-hander pitched for the San Jacintos and was helped by two round trip smacks by a player whom the arthur [sic] of the article dishonored by merely giving his nick name [sic], ‘Bow Row.’ The player plays second base and poled out his second homer with the bases drunk. The writer likewise omitted the player that swatted a four-bagger for LaPlace, simply calling him ‘Spucks.’”

That jargon and slang and use of nicknames is one of the things I love about sports journalism in the early-to-mid-20th century, especially in the African-American press. It just brought a colorful, familiar feel to the prose and commentary.

Chicago Defender, Sept. 16, 1916

When the San Jacinto Club didn’t appear to have an active baseball team itself, it was still playing a key role in the New Orleans Black hardball scene, as was the case in April 1938. While the ’38 season was getting off the ground, one of the city’s baseball kingpins, “Creole” Pete Robertson, called together other New Orleans baseball leaders to a meeting at the San Jacinto Club “for the purpose of organizing a state baseball league,” according to the April 2 issue of the Weekly.

Robertson, stated the newspaper, was “recently appointed director of the South Central Zone of the US Amateur and Semi-pro Baseball association.” I’m not sure completely what that is, and I’m not going to delve too deeply into that. But it does reflect Robertson’s influence in the city and Louisiana.

Several managers and executives of various squads descended upon the San Jacinto for the meeting, including representatives from the Reserve Mixtures, Hammond Red Sox and New Orleans Black Pelicans and the Crescent Stars of New Orleans.

Reported the April 9, 1938, Weekly:

“Various talks were made on the merits of the league in the state of Louisiana and those present expressed their willingness to take part. Mr. Robertson, acting as chairman, announced that the final meeting would be held … April 14. All teams desiring to enter the league must be present and have their entrance fee at the coming meeting.”

I haven’t been able to find out what exactly happened after that in terms of Robertson and the proposed state baseball league, largely because the various archives and libraries that have the Louisiana Weekly’s complete run on microfilm haven’t been open for months.

But you can see that the San Jacinto was a significant social and economic hub for Black New Orleans, especially in terms of athletic exploits. I’m sure that as I continue to explore the New Orleans Black baseball scene, more reports about the San Jacinto Club, its offerings and its athletic representatives will filter in. The organization was a small but important part of the complex, rich tapestry of African-Americans sports and life during segregation, and its full place in that tradition is still out there to be discovered.

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The exterior of the club, 1956. (Photo courtesy the Ralston Crawford Collection of Jazz Photography.)

APPENDIX

I just wanted to add a few things from the San Jacinto Club, namely stuff from its charter, by-laws and constitution, because they really, I feel, show what the organization stood for, and what social aid and pleasure clubs did for the Black population of New Orleans.

Possibly the biggest mission of the San Jacinto wasn’t athletic pursuits; it was providing financial help to its members and family, especially when a member was sick or passed away. It was sort of a private insurance cooperative in which much of the members’ dues and fees was used to aid members and families in distress — health care if they were ill, funeral expenses if a death had occurred. The club also offered a version of a pension system for older members.

This is the club By-Laws’ Article XI, titled “Relief Committee” (the language is verbatim):

… Each member of this committee must within (24) hours after being apprised of a member being sick in his district he shall notify the President of this committee who must bestow continual attention to the sick members as soon as he has been notified that a member is sick and confined to his room. He shall go immediately to the residence of said member or as soon thereafter as possible. He has the full power and the responsibility to draw on the Treasurer for the pension of a sick member, provided, said member furnish a doctors certificate from the physician in attendance which must specify that said member has been sick and confined to his room seven (7) days. Each member of this committee must visit each member at his charge at least twice a week. Each member of this committee must visit each member of his district as soon as he is called upon. In case of death of a member it will be the duty of said committee to proceed together and carry out the law relative thereto. Each member of this committee must exercise strict surveillance on each sick in his charge and see that the sick is confined to his bed or room [or] otherwise declare his pension null …

The exterior, 1920s. (Photo by Villard Paddio, courtesy of Hogan Jazz Archive.)

And this is Article XIII of the By-Laws, providing for after-death services (also verbatim):

“In case of death of a member the club will be notified by the family of the deceased and the club will show particular respect for him by having the flag at half mass [sic] and a tax of 25 cents will be imposed upon the members of the club and within the shortest time possible after the meeting of said collection remit to whomsoever has been designated by the deceased as his beneficiary. Should there be no designation the club will not recognize any claim with the exception, if said member does not belong to any other organization and same can be proven, the club will dispose of said collection for the burial of said member. As soon as the President shall receive notice of the death of a member he shall go to the family of the deceased and offer the service of the club.”

The other facet of the SJC’s purpose and function was the strict rules by which members were required to abide, ensuring that all members were refined, gentlemanly, upstanding citizens at a time when Black citizens of New Orleans were trying to earn equal standing in society. Club members felt that one way to achieve that equality was “proving” to whites that Clack residents were upstanding citizens who deserved respect.

Hence the strict club rules. Here’s Article XII of the SJC Constitution:

“Any member who will commit a dishonorable act and be proven guilty of same shall be expelled from the club and can never become a member of said club.”

Some of the more particular requirements included:

  • All members entering the club parlors must be wearing their coats and take off their hats;
  • Expectorating on club floors, i.e. hocking loogies, was banned;
  • “Members shall not sit themselves on the front porch without their coats on. Louid, vile and boisterous talking or sitting on the banisters is strictly prohibited. Members wishing to enter the club and not wearing a coat must enter by the gate”;
  • Members who weren’t competing in any game — I’m guessing cards, chess, etc. — couldn’t interfere in the game.
  • “Any member entering the club rooms intoxicated and making himself otherwise boisterous, fighting or destroying the property of the club shall be liable according to the offense to a fine of 50 cents to $2.50 or be expelled.”