Life lessons from Sammy the Jet

Sammy “the Jet” Jethroe (photo courtesy Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)

A few weeks ago, while I was in Rochester for my mom’s funeral, a few of us were hoping to sneak away to a Red Wings game on July 27 to kind of have some fun and blow off emotional steam. I learned via Nate Rowan’s media listserv that before the game, the Wings were going to host the induction of Sam Jethroe into the International League Hall of Fame.

Armed with this new knowledge, I thought about attending the game and interviewing some of Jethroe’s descendants and International League president Randy Humber for a prospective article on Sam’s ushering into the ILHOF. However, we weren’t able to squeeze the game into our slate of events, which was disappointing, but we knew there was too much else going down in terms of the funeral trip.

But, fortunately, since then I’ve been able to land a few assignments about Jethroe and his induction, and I’ve been able to do a few phone and email interviews as follow-ups. One of the folks I talked to was Rachel Jethroe, Sam’s granddaughter, who lives in Rochester.

Other members of the Jethroe family attended the ceremony as well, including some from Erie, Pa., where Sam Jethroe retired to and spent his last several decades as a resident and businessman. (The IL does its Hall of Fame inductions separately at various places; Sam’s induction was held in Rochester because of Rachel’s residence there.)

“It’s a wonderful lifetime achievement,” Rachel later told me. “I wish he could have been there to enjoy the recognition for his achievements.”

Rachel added that the induction ceremony was extremely touching and meaningful.

“We enjoyed the game, the whole family came up from Erie,” she said. “It was a beautiful moment.”

Carla Jethroe, another of Sam’s granddaughters, told me that they’re “beyond proud” of their grandfather, adding that the honor helps to keep Sam’s legacy alive.

“It was a great [legacy] because it still lives on,” she said.

Red Wings officials, IL representatives and members of Sam Jethroe’s family gather for Jethroe’s induction into the IL Hall of Fame July 27 at Frontier Field (photo by Joe Territo/Rochester Red Wings).

I just contributed an article to the Erie Times-News about the induction; it was published Sunday, and you can check it out here.

But wait, wait, wait … Who’s Sam Jethroe anyway, you might be asking, and why is he important enough to warrant election to a hall of fame?

Well, here’s the rundown …

Sam Jethroe, who was raised and started his baseball career in East St. Louis, played for the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League in the 1940s. He was known first and foremost as a near-supersonic speedster and demon on the basepaths, but he also led the NAL in batting multiple seasons using a deceptively powerful swing to crush doubles and triples by the boatful. The Bucks won the 1945 Negro World Series over the vaunted Homestead Grays with Jethroe leading the way.

Here’s how SABR colleague, historian and author Stephanie Liscio summed up Jethroe’s Negro Leagues career:

“He was one of the Buckeyes’ most consistent and talented hitters during the 1940s. He hit for average, had tremendous speed, and was a skilled defender. The Buckeyes likely don’t win the 1945 World Series without him (and may not have been in a position to even be in the World Series).”

However — and here’s where he enters the baseball lexicon for many people — he went on to integrate the Boston Braves in 1950 as a starting centerfielder. Jethroe’s jump made the Braves the fifth major-league team to integrate, and, after a scorching first season in the majors, he earned the National League Rookie of the Year award at age 32.

The accolade made him the oldest rookie so far in MLB history to pick up ROY honors, and his second season in the majors, 1951, saw just about an equal amount of excellence as his first one; he led the NL in stolen bases each year, and he ranked high in several other categories.

In March 1951, Jethroe gave an interview to Baltimore Afro-American sportswriting legend Sam Lacy, who transcribed Sam’s comments and published them in a column. Jethroe’s words reflect how he realized that, despite some flashiness at the bat, it was his quickness and daring on the basepaths that earned his paychecks. Jethroe told Lacy:

“Anyone should know my legs are most important to me ’cause I make a business of running.

“I can run fast and I know it. May the Lord help me when I can’t run anymore. …

“[W]hen it comes to a real showdown, it’s the pair of good legs I was lucky enough to draw that makes my major league baseball life a success. …

“Taking a chance is something I believe in. If the other guy bobbles the ball, I’m gone, and he’s got to throw me out. In a close game, if an outfielder holds his head down on a ground ball just a second longer than I think he should, I’m going to make him throw me out ’cause I ain’t stopping! …

“I find that taking a chance pays off ’cause it has a tendency to make the other side jittery. The fielder knows he’s got to make the perfect throw and the man covering base realizes he has to catch the ball and outguess me on the slide.”

But things took a disappointing turn in 1952, when intestinal surgery and uncorrected bad eyesight led to a steep dropoff at the plate and in centerfield, where his poor eyesight led him to misjudge and just plain lose fly balls in the sky as they arched his way.

So for the 1953 campaign, the Braves demoted Jethroe to their Triple-A farm club, the Toledo Sox. The Pittsburgh Pirates took a chance on him and picked him up for the for the ’54 season. However, his foibles in the field and at the plate — coupled with the slowing of his fleet feet — earned him just two game appearances for the Bucs, who promptly sent him down go Triple-A again. He was retired from professional baseball and living in Erie by the early 1960s.

Thus, Jethroe’s major-league career — just over three seasons total in the bigs — now seems like a historical footnote and a prime example of advancing age catching up with a once-talented and supremely gifted athlete. (Actually, his career probably, for many people, carries a second footnote, but more on that a little further down.)

However, we have to remember the main reason why he didn’t break into the bigs until age 32 — the 60-year enforcement of a tacit “gentleman’s agreement” that barred African-American players, coaches and managers from the majors that wasn’t broken until a fellow named Jack Roosevelt Robinson came along.

In addition, Jethroe’s career wasn’t just about his relatively fleeting time in major league baseball. His stellar tenure in the Negro Leagues — particularly with the Cleveland Buckeyes — not only convinced MLB teams to sign him up, but also stands by itself as a formidable achievement. He was one quite simply one of the best players in the Negro American League in the 1940s.

(This is where the second footnote comes into play. In 1945, Jethroe was one of three Negro Leaguers — the others were Robinson and Marvin Williams — invited by the Boston Red Sox for a workout in front of Sox management. As could be predicted, the event turned out to be a complete sham; the Sox were never going to sign any of the trio anyway. The BoSox, of course, were the very last MLB team to integrate, which didn’t happen until 1959 with Pumpsie Green, who died just this past month).

However, there was a third section of Jethroe’s blazing career — his tenure in the minor leagues, during which he emerged as one of the greatest players the Triple-A International League has ever seen.

Jethroe’s saga in the minors begins not within the Braves organization, but in none other than Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers farm system.

Because, you see, Rickey ended up signing and grooming a large handful of Negro Leaguers during the late 1940s, in addition to Robinson. Naturally there were Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, but Dan Bankhead, Joe Black and Jim Gilliam all eventually made it to the Dodgers roster. 

Like that half-dozen, Jethroe was inked by Rickey, and in 1948 he was assigned to the Montreal Royals of the International League, the team that Jackie Robinson shined for in 1946 on his way from the Negro Leagues to the majors.

And Jethroe made the most of his first true crack at “organized” baseball, eventually establishing himself as a phenom in the International League for two full seasons in which he ranked highly in a whole bunch of categories, including stolen bases, homers, doubles, hits and other rankings.

(Jethroe enjoyed his experience in Montreal, too.the province of Quebec as well. In a 1948 American Baseball Bureau survey, he answered the question about his most interesting experience in the sport, he answered, “when I had a chance to play with the Montreal Royals.”)

However, while such a track record that normally would most likely lead to a call up to Brooklyn, Rickey instead sold Jethroe to the Boston Braves for a then-whopping $125,000. (To this day there’s much speculation about exactly how high the price tag was, but it was easily at least six figures.)

1957 Toronto Maple Leafs

Reasons for Rickey’s decision to let such a bright prospect, from what I can tell, have never been completely pinned down — it’s tough to tease out the mental machinations of the baseballs Mahatma — theories included the fact that future National Baseball Hall of Famer Duke Snider was already ensconced in centerfield in Brooklyn, making another CF like Jethroe, no matter how good, expendable.

Another theory is that Rickey was hesitant to bring up a fourth black player (in addition to Robbie, Campy and Newcombe) to his major-league roster because, the notion goes, having four players of color on the Dodger roster was simply too much to be acceptable at that point in the integration process, i.e. the other teams and powers-that-be, while they might grumble, were willing to accept three black guys on one team, but four was beyond the pale for the conservative times.

Plus, of course, the sale of a hot commodity like Jethroe would net a whole lotta green for Rickey and the Dodgers. Money, it seems, has always talked.

So the Braves were given the first crack at establishing Jethroe with a major-league career. But, as noted previously, the Jet became a shooting star for the Braves, who sent Jethroe to Toledo. 

At that time, the Toledo Sox were members of the American Association, but the International League eventually emerged on Jethroe’s horizon again. Because when the Pirates dropped Sammy to their minor-league system, he ended up with the Toronto Maple Leafs of — you guessed it — the International League!

For five seasons, Jethroe served as a steady member of the Maple Leafs, batting .280 over the stretch and once again frequently showing up in the IL’s leaders in various categories.

Encompassing his entire cumulative tenure in the International League with Montreal and Toronto, Jethroe batted .293 over 875 games, racking up 940 hits, 157 doubles, 52 triples, 91 home runs, 383 RBIs and 205 stolen bases. That includes the single-season marks for steals, hits and runs, the last two of which still stand.

He retired after his stint in Toronto, settling in Erie for the rest of his life. He owned and worked at a bar for many years and became a fixture in the northwest Pennsylvania community.

In the 1990s Jethroe sued Major League Baseball and the players’ union for a pension plan, arguing that he and many other former Negro Leagues players hadn’t reached the required threshold of MLB service because racial discrimination prevented them from breaking into the majors sooner. Although the lawsuit was eventually tossed, MLB agreed to provide a modest pension to Jethroe and other players.

Sam “the Jet” Jethroe died in 2001 at the age of 84.

For my article in the Times-News, I chatted with International League president Randy Mobley about Sam Jethroe’s election to the IL Hall of Fame, and he said Jethroe’s outsized achievements, especially with the Royals, more than earned the Jet a spot in the hall.

Another scene from the July 27 induction ceremony (photo by Joe Territo/Rochester Red Wings).

“To put in perspective how well he played, in my research I’ve come across where some people thought he made Montreal forget about Jackie Robinson,” Mobley said. “That’s a pretty good statement about him.”

Also thanks to Red Wings media relations guru for his help with my articles and blog. I also want to give credit to longtime Wings GM Dan Mason for his contributions, including commenting for my articles.

“It was an honor to host the family of Sam Jethroe on Saturday, July 27 as Randy Mobley inducted Sam into the International League Hall of Fame,” Dan told me. “It was great to see our fans so interested when Randy described the details of Sam’s groundbreaking career. With such a rich history of professional baseball in our community it was great to host this event for the League and Sam’s family, some of whom reside in our town. He is certainly a VERY worthy inductee for the International League Hall of Fame.”

When assessing Jethroe’s overall legacy on the national pastime — as well as the game’s history of racial turmoil, struggle and ultimate success — it’s perhaps instrumental to note that he was never a superstar in the majors, but he still made it to that top level of play. Just like all white players couldn’t be Joe DiMaggio, not all former Negro Leaguers could be Jackie Robinson. As Martin F. Nolan wrote in the Boston Globe upon Jethroe’s death:

“The lesson in equality Jethroe taught is the civil right to be less than the best.”

Sometimes “success” isn’t about becoming an all-time legend; it’s measured in more modest terms. And that’s a lesson I myself can learn from Sam Jethroe.

Am I a Pultizer Prize-winning writer? Honestly, probably not. But I know I’m still pretty darn good at what I do, and I’ve earned a pretty decent spot in the worlds of journalism and historical research. For years, I’ve beaten myself up for not writing books or becoming a university professor or breaking through to the prominent national-level media.

But I’m learning to be proud of what I have accomplished — I’ve developed an award-winning blog, and I’ve had hundreds of articles published in dozens of publications and on dozens of Web sites. Are the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine among them? Not as of yet. But I know that most of the media outlets I have worked for really liked and appreciated my work and efforts, and I’m proud and glad to be able to contribute to every one of them in any way I can.

And I know my colleagues respect and like me (I hope!), and I respect and like them, and I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has supported and encouraged me over the years. That includes family, friends and loved ones, too. Despite all of my health challenges, I’ve found a place for myself in the world, however modest, and I’m starting to learn to be proud of that as an important achievement on its very own — just like Sam Jethroe did.

And just like, I sincerely hope, have all of you, my readers. Find your place in the world — a place of respect and pride and accomplishment and acceptance and happiness — and enjoy life for all it brings you. Do your best and make an impact all your own, and know that you’ve made a difference for countless people and enriched their lives.

That is what Sam Jethroe did, and he deserves and hard-fought, honored place in many people’s lives. We should all be so lucky.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum curator Dr. Ray Doswell offered a pretty good summation of Sam Jethroe’s impact on baseball history:

“Jethroe to me represents the great talent, yet unfulfilled opportunities of many Negro Leagues stars had to endure. If, perhaps, he had opportunities a few years sooner, could we be speaking of Jethroe among his Hall of Fame contemporaries? Might his ROY season been sooner? He was as good an athlete as any available at the time and could have helped any team. This honor from the International League recognizes that and the importance of his minor leagues contributions.”


Upcoming conference focuses on Detroit Stars, Hamtramck Stadium

The 1920 Detroit Stars (photo by the Detroit News)

With SABR’s Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference on hiatus until 2020, when it will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the original Negro National League, another group of dedicated baseball historians, researchers and preservationists have stepped up to fill the void with a conference that will recognize and shine a light on another crucial black baseball milestone — the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Detroit Stars.

From Aug. 8-10 at the Marriott Detroit Metro Detroit, the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium — a group that works to preserve and promote Hamtramck Stadium, one of only five Negro League home ballparks still in existence — as well as other folks in the Detroit area will host the gathering celebrating the establishment in 1919 of the Stars, a club that played in the NNL for the latter’s entire lifespan (1920-31) and featured lengthy stints by Hall of Famers Andy Cooper, Pete Hill and Turkey Stearnes, as well as other black ball greats like Bruce Petway, John Donaldson, Jimmie Lyons, Bill Holland and Frank Wickware.

Below is a lightly-edited email interview I conducted recently with Gary Gillette, one of the Detroit conference’s organizers, who encourages all Negro Leagues enthusiasts and fans of baseball history in the Motor City to attend.

Ryan Whirty: What was the genesis of the Detroit Stars conference? How did it start and get off the ground?

Gary Gillette: Because 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Detroit Stars, the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium were planning several special events. At the same time, the SABR Detroit Chapter was considering making a bid to host an upcoming Jerry Malloy Conference, most likely in 2021. When the surprising announcement was made on March 2 that the 2019 Malloy Conference would not be held, we started to think about whether we could host our own conference to focus on the Detroit Stars’ centennial.

RW: Why did you (the conference committee) feel the need to organize and present an event like this? What about the history of black baseball in Detroit makes this subject intriguing?

GG: The primary organizing reason was the Stars’ centennial, which no one else in Detroit seemed to be thinking about. A second reason was the general lack of knowledge about the history of the Negro Leagues in Detroit. This seemed like a good way to publicize the history of Black Baseball in Michigan as well as seed the ground for more events next year during the national celebration of the centennial of the Negro National League.

The back of the historic marker at Hamtramck Stadium (photo by Karolina Gillette)

RW: Detroit in general, and especially the Stars, sometimes gets overshadowed by more well known “western” Negro League teams like the Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs. Why do you think that is, and why is it important to remember and celebrate Detroit’s blackball legacy?

GG: The American Giants and the Monarchs were two of the most successful Negro League clubs ever, so it makes sense that they would overshadow the Detroit Stars. Plus, the American Giants had the connection to [original NNL founder and National Baseball Hall of Famer] Rube Foster, and the Monarchs a strong connection with Satchel Paige.

Another key factor is that the original Detroit Stars lasted only until 1931. After 1931, the three major Negro League teams in Detroit weren’t very successful, and each lasted only one season. Detroit should have gotten another franchise in the Negro American League in the 1940s, but never did. Several NAL owners apparently conspired to block that logical move so as to preserve lucrative dates for neutral-site games in Motown, which was prospering due to the wartime economy.

The 1935 Detroit Cubs, another team that played at Hamtramck Stadium (photo property of the Burton Collection/Detroit Public Library)

RW: Preserving and rehabbing Hamtramck Stadium has been a massive, lengthy and ongoing undertaking. How do you think the stadium is holding up today, and do you think the general public, especially in Detroit, realizes its importance and understands why it should be preserved?

GG: In terms of its physical condition, the stadium is about the same as when I first learned about it 11 years ago. After all, these buildings were designed to withstand the weather. Of course, there’s some new graffiti, a few more holes in the bleacher treads, and some general age-related deterioration — but it is still restorable and well worth saving.

The major improvement in the past decade is the awareness of the stadium’s history and its importance to both [the city of] Hamtramck and Detroit. The number of people who know at least a little about the history is many times what it was a decade ago, and the number of people who care about its preservation is hundreds of times what it was 10 years ago.

Former players Ron Teasley and Pedro Sierra at Hamtramck Stadium (photo by Karolina Gillette)

RW: Who is your favorite Detroit Star, and why?

GG: [National Baseball Hall of Famer and centerfielder] Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, one of the most underrated players in baseball history. His life story is fascinating. Note that I can’t claim objectivity here, as the Stearnes’ family in Detroit has been incredibly warm and welcoming to me. Other favorites are [catcher and outfielder] Andy Love and [third baseman and NBHOFer] Ray Dandridge. Love was a star prep athlete at Hamtramck High School who was a utility player for the Stars’ in 1930–31, their first two years in Hamtramck. Hall of Famer Dandridge made his pro debut in Hamtramck with the 1933 Stars.

Turkey Stearnes later in life (photo by John Collier)

RW: What do you think was the Stars’ greatest team?

GG: There’s no question that the best Stars’ team was the 1930 club, which played at a .750-plus clip in the second half to end up in the Negro National League Championship Series against the powerful St. Louis Stars. Detroit lost that hard-fought Championship Series in seven games.

RW: Who would you say was the greatest Negro Leagues player born and raised in Detroit and surrounding areas, and why?

GG: There weren’t many Negro League players born in Detroit, probably because the black population of Detroit was pretty small before 1920. The best of the native Detroiters was Mike Moore, an outfielder in the pre-league era. However, he only lived in Detroit until age 13 or 14, when his parents moved to Chicago. Because Turkey Stearnes came to Detroit very young (22) and stayed for the rest of his life, I consider him to be a native Detroiter. If one agrees with me, then there’s no competition for the greatest native …

Major League Baseball legend Ty Cobb throwing out a first pitch at a game in Hamtramck Stadium (photo property of Avanti Press)

RW: Of course, there’s much more to the Negro Leagues in Detroit and the state of Michigan than just the Stars, from the Page Fence Giants forward. What other subjects will be presented and discussed at the conference? How would you describe the black baseball legacy of the state of Michigan overall?

GG: Certainly significant, but after 1931, essentially a lost opportunity for the reasons outlined above. The Page Fence Giants were pioneers, but the club lasted only four years. If baseball had integrated in the 1930s, Detroit would have been remembered as one of the most prominent Negro League venues, but by the time Jack Roosevelt Robinson took the field for Brooklyn in 1947, Detroit’s Black Baseball history had faded.

For more information on the Detroit Stars Centennial Conference or to register for the event, check it out here. For more info on the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, head here.

All photos provided courtesy of Gary Gillette and the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium.

New 19th century chronicle a labor of love

Sylvester “Syl” Anderson was a member of a large baseball family. Anderson’s career (1890s-1900s) was primarily played in Wichita, Kan. He became a police officer and continued to play ball.
(All images courtesy of James Brunson.)
Friend, researcher and scholar James Brunson recently published a massive, comprehensive, revelatory study of 19th-century African-American, or “colored,” baseball through McFarland Publishing, “Black Baseball, 1858-1900: A Comprehensive Record of the Teams, Players, Managers, Owners and Umpires.”

It was a momentous undertaking, and it’s uncovered details and intricacies hitherto unknown, and it’s drawn the curtain back on some of systemic and individual racism — both overt and implied — that both hindered black baseballers and inspired them to great heights.

John Thorn supplied the foreward to Brunson’s book; here’s a link to Thorn’s Our Game official MLB blog featuring the text of that intro.

Here is a lightly edited, email-interview I recently conducted with James about his new work …

Ryan Whirty: This obviously was a massive undertaking. How long did it take you, and where do you even start with a project this big?

James Brunson: I am academically trained as an art historian and visual culture specialist who integrates high art and popular art into the history of 19th century black baseball.

My project began in 1985 or 1986, depending on how one views it. In 1985, I was researching subject matter for a series of paintings. Reading microfilm, I came across a story on Isaac Carter, a ballplayer for the St. Louis Black Stockings in 1883. Carter was shot and killed in 1884, by a man who claimed he was a burglar (the story is much more complicated). This story piqued my interest. I photocopied the page and filed it away.

In 1986, my family made its annual Memorial Day pilgrimage to St. Louis. Time was set aside to do research at the Olive Street downtown library. Eerily, the home connected to Carter’s death was on Olive Street. I photocopied everything I could about the St. Louis Black Stockings. Currently, I have two notebooks on them, at least three inches in thickness. I came across more St. Louis teams, and photocopied their stories.

I discovered that black clubs of Chicago and St. Louis had been rivals since the 1870s. I discovered that few baseball books detailed the history of the Black Stockings, let alone black baseball, to my satisfaction. Why? Such books posed more issues, which raised questions that I thought others — like me — wanted to know. With pluck and perseverance, I decided to research the entire history of 19th century black baseball. That was the beginning …

RW: What types of sources did you use? Were there any sources of information that proved especially challenging to locate, track down and use?

JB: When I began my project, neither Internet nor digital newspapers existed. I primarily used microfilm. My university [Northern Illinois] has a great microfilm library. St. Louis has a great microfilm library. The University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana has a great microfilm room, including many Missouri and Colorado newspapers, that historical communications corridor along the Missouri River. I expanded my search by going to libraries around the country (California, Nevada, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania).

Whenever I had a university conference or family vacation, I carved out time in my schedule to visit microfilm rooms. Sometimes, I took weekends and traveled to libraries. To keep my new piece of information, despite the financial travel and hotel costs, was worth it (I am reminded of a Cincinnati trip where I only found the rosters of the 1869 Western Union B.B.C., and its precursor, the 1868 Creole B.B.C.).

The Wilson boys, Hiram (left) and Fred, of Kalamazoo, Mich., played in the 1880s and 1890s.

The Pythian archives at Harrisburg, Pa.,’s library is a gem. Unknown teams and players (at least to me) are listed. Moreover, this archive helps to flesh out mysteries that I had. For example, the Ashmun Club of Lincoln University had organized around the time of the [Philadelphia] Pythians team. Cross-referencing the club in the school’s 19th century yearbooks, I discovered more biographical info on players and team rosters.

Nothing was especially challenging in locating or using microfilm. If I wanted a newspaper unavailable at my institution, I ordered it through interlibrary loan. Usually received the microfilm in a few days. My organizational approach included photocopying, and jotting down information on my many legal pads (gray, pink, white, yellow). I also used composition notebooks. They are filled from front to back. I used multi-colored ink pens to differentiate either dates that I collected information, or to define a specific team or state. I was obsessed!

My ambitious plan included collecting and archiving everything! No parts of the newspaper, black- or white-owned, are left untouched. I have found advertisements with names of teams and players, as an example, which initially astonished me. They were similar in format to business cards. My archive grew. The main challenge was making sense of it all. I began to identify themes. Hotel-waiters, tonsorial artists-barbers, team rosters, black umpires, men and women’s teams, military teams, minstrel-theatrical teams, families composed of ballplayers, individual biographies, and black aesthetic style were themes I explored in my first book, “Early Image of Black Baseball.”

RW: Perhaps the biggest finding discussed in this work is that African Americans were playing what today would be called baseball a lot earlier than previously thought. What were some of the first instances of “colored” or “Negro” baseball that you uncovered?

JB: Historians not primarily focused on 19th-century black baseball (there are some who are, as you know), sometimes find additional gems that solidify organized black baseball’s roots in the 1850s. The first black baseball towns I uncovered were St. Louis, Chicago, Rockford, Ill., and Springfield, Ill. I discovered that some teams traveled to other cities, states and countries in the 1870s, and I began searching newspapers in those countries, states and cities. I was blown away, as an example, when I discovered that Chicago’s Uniques, in 1871, traveled to Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York and Upper Canada. I came across more teams and new locales to search. The discovery of the St. Louis Browns, a club that claimed professional status in 1870, was a revelation. It also became clear, at least to me, that the Uniques had claimed professional status as well.

The digital age: In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, my ongoing research uncovered that black clubs had formed baseball circuits in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s. I became particularly interested in finding players that moved from one team to another. Between the 1850s and 1870s, the following organized teams captured my attention: Flushing’s Hunter B.B.C.; Binghamton’s Parlor B.BC.; Brooklyn’s Van Delken/Weldenken B.B.C.; Chicago’s Twilight Blue Stocking B.B.C.; Rockford’s Blue Stocking B.B.C.; New Orleans Pickwick B.B.C.; New Orleans Union B.B.C.; New Orleans Excelsior B.B.C.; Cleveland’s Twilight B.B.C.; Cincinnati’s Vigilant BBC; Louisville’s Fair Play BBC; and Indianapolis’s Western Fairplay B.B.C. These nines immediately come to mind. Many others appear in the book.

RW: How early were white players, teams and executives already pushing back against the idea of integration in the sport? When did racism and segregation first start seeping into the history of our national pastime?

JB: Many books have been written on the subject, and I have little to say about it. What I will say is that black men played with white clubs in the 1860s, which I discuss in my book. White teams played black teams in the 19th century, also covered in the book. One target that I devote considerable attention to relates to the racist impact of blackface minstrelsy on black baseball. It was devastating! Its effects on black baseball have been little examined. My book examines what I call black aesthetic style — intentionally misrepresented in 19th-century newspaper accounts. Baseball narratives constructed by newspaper reporters (if carefully analyzed) and visual culture, support this thesis.

Representations minstrelizing black players trace back to the 1850s, the enslaved black body metaphorically transformed in a modern black Frankenstein. Just as Frankenstein’s body was constructed of mismatched pieces, so were literary and visual representations of the black ballplayer. The eyes, nose and mouth too big; the hands and feet too big; the body too fat, too gangly or too muscular; and shine bones, incompatible with hot grounders. In the book, I examine this racist ideology.

Some baseball literature remains mired in representations of black baseball or Negro Leagues as novelty, that is, “Negro Comedy,” a self-reflexive mode that serves little purpose in the 21st century. Unfortunately, such views are complicit in reifying the notion of black players engaging in baseball farce or baseball minstrelsy. Until now, no one has analyzed how this racist narrative gained traction and its misrepresentations incorporated into baseball literature. Initially, I found this all astonishing. Getting over my disgust, I began to critically examine how it happened. It’s not easy getting 19th-century black baseball right, because it’s easier to get it wrong.

Black Frankenstein, by Frank Bellew, 1853. Theatrical performers, newspaper reporters and visual artists imagined the black ballplayer as a Frankenstein monster. 

Black aesthetic style in organized baseball easily traces back to 1870, and it had nothing to do with baseball farce. It was cultural, part of the lived experiences of black folk in organized baseball; in certain cases, traceable to black enslavement. Organized baseball, newspapers and visual culture intentionally portrayed black clubs/players as minstrel shows/minstrels, not only to limit their search for equality, but also to mock their athleticism and baseball skills as novelty.

Another strategy had to do with leisure class culture and class competition — to hire black players meant fewer jobs for white players; in the professional leagues, relatively well-paid jobs for doing what one loved, baseball, mattered. To disparage black players and push them to the margins was a massive effort that sadly goes back to the beginnings of organized baseball. Let’s remember, however, that Ulysses Franklin Grant and King Solomon White, both playing for white and black clubs, engaged in so-called “Negro antics.” Both players are in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Let’s not get it twisted.

John H. Devereaux, publisher for the Savannah Colored Tribune (1875), and co-publishers George Davison and Thomas T. Harden, supported black baseball. Davison would manage the Savannah Chathams. The three men also played a role in the formation of the League of Southern Colored Base Ballists (1886).

RW: As someone who’s based in New Orleans and who’s focused a great deal on black baseball here, I’m curious to know how much your new work discusses early African-American baseball here in NOLA. How early did “colored” baseball spring up here in New Orleans, and how rich was the baseball tradition here in New Orleans in the 19th century?

JB: Louisiana in general, and New Orleans in particular, are covered extensively. I first discovered New Orleans while researching the St. Louis Black Stockings who traveled there in the 1880s. My research notebook of photocopies on black baseball in New Orleans is four inches thick. For detailed information, I recommend my book’s team and player biographies, and team rosters.

While New Orleans has a rich black baseball history, traceable to the 1860s, it takes firm ground with the organization of a baseball tournament in 1875. By 1876, the Pickwicks, composed of black servants for the Pickwick Club, was a very strong organization. The black Pickwicks named their club after their employers (a dangerous, white supremacist organization that funded Mardi Gras and engaged in racial violence against black people). The Pickwicks team was led by the Cohen brothers, Walter Louis, Edward and James; and Edward Williams and James Duncan Kennedy; all excellent ballplayers. Interestingly, William Albert “Al” Robinson, from Chicago, joined the team around 1879. He played in Louisiana off and on between 1879 and 1886.

RW: Summing up, what would you say is the overarching theme in this work, and what message would you hope readers get out of the books?

JB: Family, Teamwork, Love, Hope and Devotion – My deceased wife, Kathleen (whom I love and miss dearly), traveled with me. Three times we visited [Major League Baseball official historian] John Thorn at his home in the Catskills. John enjoyed talking with her as much as he did with me; probably more. She shared my enthusiasm to the end. In the middle of the night, it was not unusual for Kathleen to yell from upstairs for me to get off the computer and come to bed. While she didn’t live to see the book’s publication, I had — from the beginning — dedicated this book to her.

I also dedicated the book to my daughters, Takkara and Tamerit, and my mom, Lucille Brunson. A special token of gratitude was given to my lifelong friend, Willard Draper, who read my drafts and posed questions that I hadn’t considered. Sadly, “Draper” wouldn’t live to see the book’s publication either, his death coming this year (2019), almost one year after Kathleen’s (2018). My book’s completion embodies family, teamwork, love, hope and devotion.

I end with this quote from my book: “Researching this book has been a humbling experience. Documenting the lived experiences of men and women who played the game has evoked a range of emotions: shock, sadness, disgust, humor, and jubilation … They played in the heat, rain, mud, and cold. They elicited hecklers, peals of laughter, and enthusiastic rounds of applause. Many of them went on to have successful careers outside of the game. As young men and women, however, all they ever wanted to do was play baseball — if they could — alongside their white brethren. This book is for them.”

I especially thank my editor, Gary Mitchem, at McFarland Publishing, who, back in 2011, believed in this baseball project.

Xavier, Part 1: Fats Jenkins, two-sport star

Harlem Rens, Fats Jenkins far left

I’m posting this piece much later — a month and a half, roughly — than I wanted to, and it’s turned into a multi-headed behemoth of information that I’ve been struggling to pull together in my mind and on the page, err, screen.

This past March 28 was the 80th anniversary of one of the most important events in both black history and American sporting history. In 1939, the legendary New York Renaissance African-American basketball team — known as the Harlem Rens or just the Rens — won the very first professional World Basketball Championship when they beat the Oshkosh All-Stars, a white team from Wisconsin, in the championship game of the inaugural pro hoops tournament, held in Chicago.

Opined Atlanta Daily World columnist Lucius Jones in that paper’s March 30, 1939, issue:

“Any doubt that the New York Renaissance basketball team is the real world professional cage champion certainly must now be dissipated to the four winds.”

In the April 8, 1939, edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, sports columnist Chester Washington Jr. stated thusly:

“You just can’t take it away from them. The Rens still reign supreme as the greatest pro basketball team in the country. … Skipper Bob Douglass’ [sic] classy outfit was pitted against the best pro teams in the country and they came through with flying colors. …

“The Rens had to be good to win out over such tough, youthful opposition. … As long as the Douglass-managed outfit continues to turn out a happy combination of experience and brains plus youth and pep into teams which hit perfectly ‘on all five,’ they’ll continue to be worthy of the designation: ‘The World’s Greatest Basketball Team.’”

The Rens — who, unlike their clowning rivals, the “Harlem” Globetrotters, where actually from Harlem (the ’Trotters were based in Chicago) — were the first fully professional all-black basketball team in history, and by winning the world tournament, they showed the world what many in the black community (not to mention the team’s white rivals, like the great Original Celtics and the Philadelphia Sphas) already knew — they were one of the best hoops teams ever assembled by that point.

I think the following quote from an April 8, 1939, article in the Chicago Defender perfectly nails down how the Renaissance played and how they dominated team after team in the 1930s:

“The Rens went about their task methodically and with [the] same precision which characterizes their play. When they needed it, they produced a scoring punch. When they guarded they did so to such an extent that the Wisconsin white team [Oshkosh] was forced to shoot from a distance and the shooting was erratic. The Rens’ defense was superb. What a team!”

The late Arthur Ashe — tennis star, social activist, author and one of the most influential, honorable and accomplished figures in sports history — wrote in “A Hard Road to Glory,” his seminal, three-volume chronicle of African-American athletics that Bob Douglas realized the limitations of the early game (gambling, lousy refereeing, ball-hogging) “and insisted his players perform more like a team, with strict adherence to discipline and the good of the team over that of the individual.”

The Rens were inducted as a team into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963, as is their founder/owner/visionary Bob Douglas. In addition, five individual Rens players — Tarzan Cooper, Pop Gates, Nat Clifton, Zack Clayton and John Isaacs — are enshrined as well.

The Rens dominated African-American basketball for roughly two decades and routinely got the better of not only their best black counterparts, but also the top white teams of the day.

I first learned about the Rens when I was at Indiana University, where one of my mentors, Dr. William Wiggins, introduced me to the trailblazing “big five.” When I was in grad school, I wrote a paper about the Rens for my Literature of the Harlem Renaissance class (which was taught by another role model for me, John McCluskey).

Doc Wiggins filled me in about the Renaissance and what they meant to basketball history.

“The Rens were the original setters of the standard,” he told me. He added:

Doc said the club wasn’t just the standard for the future of basketball — they were the standard for black kids and the whole black community. He told me:

“There was some civic pride [and] racial pride in the Rens. … For me, as a youngster in a segregated era, they definitely were idols for what they symbolized.”

For my paper (written around 2003, roughly), I actually interviewed guard John Isaacs, who at the time was the last living Ren but had yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as an individual. I spoke with Mr. Isaacs, who was a lifelong resident of New York — where he mentored and coached local kids at the Boys and Girls Club until the day he died — on the phone and came away with one of the coolest experiences of my life.

Here are bunch of sweet quotes from our conversation, because sprinkled a lot of them in:

It wasn’t about you, it was about T-E-A-M. You’re only as good as the people you played with.

We traveled in all sorts of weather — rain, snow, sleet. You had a contract, and you honor that contract.

We played in places with six potbelly stoves, three on each side. Sometimes you played right up against those stoves.

You hurried up fast, took a shower, rubbed down with alcohol, got out with your coat with the collar up, and got back on the bus to take the trip back. We didn’t waste any time.

A lot of times I made sure I had some pineapple juice, some Ritz crackers and salami, some fruit. That would tide you over over until you got back to a hotel or the YMCA or wherever you were living.

Any time you go in, you should know you’re going to win.

John Isaacs

Johnny Isaacs played on that revolutionary Rens team of 1939 that won the world title, directing the squad’s precision offense, fluid defense and dazzlingly smooth and efficient overall game.

While I’ve always loved reading and writing about the New York Renaissance in general, their history and legacy directly intersected both my Negro Leagues research and my passion for New Orleans black sports history at the same time just recently.

First, the Negro Leagues angle … the captain and point guard on that Rens team was none other than Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, a versatile, multi-sport standout who starred in the Negro Baseball Leagues as well.

Starting his professional hardball career in 1920, Jenkins, a lefty, starred as an outfielder in the Negro Leagues for roughly 20 years. He gained superstardom in the 1920s with the Harrisburg Giants, where the speedster batted leadoff and formed the “Million Dollar Outfield” with National Baseball Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston and Rap Dixon, who many believe also deserves to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Jenkins’ was supremely adept at swiping bases and getting on base, making him an ideal leadoff batter who gave Charleston, Dixon and the Giants’ other sluggers plentiful opportunities for RBIs.

My buddy, perennial Malloy conference roommate and Harrisburgite (Harrisburgian? Harrisburger?) Ted Knorr has long lobbied for more, well deserved recognition for the Jenkins-Charleston-Dixon outfield as one of the greatest outer garden trios in the annals of the American pastime, and he’s done the leg work and number crunchin’ to back it up.

Oscar Charleston, of course, is already in the Hall of Fame, and Ted (and I and many others folks) believe Rap belongs in there, too. Fats might not have been good enough to merit consideration for Cooperstown, but he filled in the third slot more than admirably. Here’s some of what Ted wrote me last week regarding the triumvirate:

“On the outfield … seven [segregation-era black] players are in the Hall as an outfielder … with five more on the ballot [in the 2006 group induction] — Jenkins, Dixon, [Spottswood] Poles, [Alejandro] Oms and [Red] Parnell — easily interpreted as the dozen best outfielders of the Negro Leagues, at least according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“The 1924-1927 Harrisburg Giant outfield of Jenkins, Charleston, Dixon is, again in the opinion of the NBHOF, the greatest outfield in the Negro Leagues as it is the only one with three of the dozen [HOF nominees] in starting roles for an appreciable length of time …

“In my opinion, certainly under segregation, this outfield is the best in any league or era, besting Meusel-Combs-Ruth [1920s New York Yankees] or Veach-Cobb-Crawford [1915 Detroit Tigers] or Lewis-Speaker-Hooper [1910s Boston Red Sox]; or the earlier Delahanty-Hamilton-Thompson [1890s Philadelphia Phillies] It is much more difficult argument to say the outfield has not been topped in the 72 seasons under Integration but I believe it. …”

Fats Jenkins and Oscar Charleston

It was during this period (when he’s on the Harrisburg Giants) when Jenkins hitched on with the Rens, filling the role that today would be called point guard. For the next 15 years, Jenkins then excelled on Negro Leagues diamonds in the summers and on the Rens’ homecourt at the grand Renaissance Ballroom and Casino in the Big Apple.

The biggest chunks of his black baseball career were spent with the New York Black Yankees, but he also played for the Lincoln Giants, Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Brooklyn Eagles and several other baseball teams. He retired from professional sports in the early to mid-1940s, carrying on with some semipro clubs here and there.

Amsterdam News, June 18, 1938

For the purpose of this blog post — and because his entirety career and life were so long, rich, influential and hard-to-summarize — let’s narrow our discussion of Jenkins to 1938-39 — the seasons in which he helped lead the Rens to the big hardwood title.

In March 1938, Jenkins was slated to suit up for the Black Yankees, but the team dangled him as trade bait, which might have generated some dissension on Fats’ part — that same month press reports surfaced stating that there was a chance he’d jump to the Washington Black Senators.

An article in the Baltimore Afro-American further stated that Black Yanks’ owner James Semler groused about the costs associated with running a Negro Leagues club; Semler stated that by the end of each baseball season, club owners “take an awful beating” financially, adding that “we are in the red plenty.”

Fats Jenkins

Jenkins seems to have stayed with the Yankees for some of the season, holding down left field and sometimes batting leadoff. However, his age was apparently starting to take effect on his speed — for many games he was bumped down to third in the order, and while a few box scores from that summer showed Fats with multiple-hit games, for just as many contests he was limited to just one or even no hits.

Pittsburgh Courier, March 5, 1938

Moreover, by late summer Jenkins got fed up with the struggling Yanks and what he viewed as Semler’s penny-pinching, reportedly taking up shop with the Black Senators in August ’38. Later in August, the Afro-American reported that Jenkins had now joined the Crawfords, “having ditched the Black Yankees because of salary differences.”

But even with his age-dimmed skills and roster-hopping, Jenkins still drew raves from both inside black baseball and outside the Negro game. In September 1938, a wire service reported that a group of white ex-major leaguers “chose a roster of Negro all-stars, each of whom they considered good enough to hold down a post on any major league outfit.” The article reported that former Pittsburgh Pirate Eppie Barnes placed Jenkins on this Negro League dream team. Stated Barnes:

“His smooth playing resembles Joe DiMaggio’s. His big league ability is obvious to those who have seen him in action.”

Then, a month later, Homestead Grays owner and Pittsburgh Courier columnist Cum Posey — himself the only figure to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — tabbed Jenkins to Posey’s annual All-American baseball team, naming him the starting left fielder on the year-end best-of roster.

Then came the winter 1938-39 basketball season that culminated with the Rens’ landmark pro hoops title in March ’39, with Jenkins pacing the hardwood juggernaut, at least tactically and emotionally.

By the late ’30s, Fats’ floor time with the Renaissance was being winnowed down, undoubtedly at least partially because of his age, a fact born out, for example, by the Rens’ 1938 and ’39 visits to New Orleans to play Xavier University. The Gold Rush boasted one of the most powerful, feared and respected athletic programs in the HBCU world, with the hoops team being better than many pro teams. (More on XULA to come.)

When the hardwood teams clashed in January 1938, Jenkins didn’t play at all in the Rens’ blowout win, and when the two teams battled in 1938, Fats also doesn’t appear in the post-game box score. Compare that to January 1935 contest between the Renaissance and the Gold Rush, when Jenkins scored nine points in another big win for the pro cagers.

Harrisburg Telegraph, March 31, 1936

As the inaugural World Basketball Championship approached in March 1939, most observers knew that Fats was close to his last hurrah with the Rens. In a March 25, 1939, column in the Pittsburgh Courier, Cum Posey asserted that Douglas, the Renaissance owner, needed to infuse some young blood in order to win the title:

“Now, Bob, one more good little fast man to set up plays and a big man like Strong who moves on the offense and defense will give you lots of protection because after all Fats can’t go on forever and your two big men don’t go up and down the court as fast as a few years ago. You have the pick of the country and can get any player you want. Don’t wait too long.”

Then came the tournament in Chicago, and Fats didn’t go full-time as the Rens advance in the brackets. Although he scored three points in the club’s semifinal win over the Globetrotters, Jenkins didn’t play at all during the championship showdown against Oshkosh; the team relied on Johnny Isaacs to direct the attack.

(However, although Fats didn’t play in every game in the tourney, he did receive an equal share — $1,000 — of the team’s winning purse.)

Afro-American, Nov. 4, 1939

At that point, Jenkins decided he just couldn’t keep pace with his Rens teammates anymore, and at the age of 41, he stepped off the team’s roster for good and stepped into the history books as a legend.

When the aging but accomplished Jenkins retired from the Rens, the Cleveland Call & Post, in its Nov. 9, 1939, bid a fond adieu to the hardwood version of Fats by pointing out his charisma, likeability, wisdom and his vibrant, playful personality:

“For many years, ‘Fats’ has played forward position for the Rens, and gained the reputation of being the fastest player on the court. ‘Fats’ also acted as captain of the squad, and his steadiness and sense of fair play have always endeared him to the fans. …

“Just how old ‘Fats’ is, is a matter of conjecture. Some say that he is well over forty, but ‘Fats’ has been as finicky about revealing the true date of his birth, as an old maid.

“‘Fats’’ popularity with the fans and his team was due also to the fact that he encouraged the younger ball players. When he learned that his legs could no longer keep up their dazzling pace, Jenkins took time out to train younger players to fill his shoes, which is one reason why the Rens have managed through the years to remain ‘tops.’

“Not only was ‘Fats’ an outstanding figure on the basketball court, but as outfielder for the New York Black Yankees. His ability as a hitter and his running of the bases, made him one of the team’s stars.”

My journalistic hero, Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American, had a brilliant way with words that both cut to the heart of the (sometimes ugly) matter but also described what he saw in the sports world with wit, clarity and insight, and when Fats Jenkins retired from the Rens in late 1939, Sam has on his game when he described Fats’:

“The name Renaissance is synonymous with basketball. And in circles where basketball is studied and talked reference to Fats Jenkins is almost inevitable.

“The kind of guy who defied all the accepted rules of athletic custom, save proper living, Fats played for 20 years in topflight ball. He was arrogant but likeable, ornery but a gentleman, chunky but fast, little but rugged.

“He could run away from an opponent in a surprise move and leave him as if he were tied to a spectator’s seat, then turn around and laugh at him. But in the next minute he’d be patting the same opponent on the arm or in the ribs as if to say, ‘Don’t let it worry you, you’ll probably do the same thing to me next time.’”

Lacy infused his commentary with a personal anecdote about Fats. In one hoops game, Lacy served as a referee, despite his inexperience and lack of confidence as a basketball official. Jenkins rode the anxious, overwhelmed new ref for the entire game, never failing to hassle, harangue or otherwise verbally rattle Lacy any way he could. As the game progressed, Fats lambasted Sam, constantly grinned in Lacy’s face, called the scribe a faker and a gypsy and even followed behind Lacy when the ref moved around the court, “mimicking my every move.”

But when the final buzzer sounded, Lacy recalls, the wily basketball captain caught the angst-ridden neophyte official completely off-guard. Sam wrote in relating the tale:

“Finally the timer’s signal put an end to my ordeal. And what do you think happened? Fats rushed over to me and said, ‘Hey, Sam, you did a damned good job, keep up the good work.’ I was dumbfounded.

“That was Fats, shrewd from the top of his alert head to the bottom of his nimble feet. Bubbling over with cunning, he could take advantage of any situation and turn the most barely noticeable weakness of the opposition or arbitration into a weapon for himself and his mates.

“That was Fats, a crackerjack player, smart as the proverbial whip, swift as a frightened gazelle and as tough an hombre as ever donned a pair of basketball trunks.”

(It should be noted that although Jenkins retired from the Renaissance, he did continue to road the parquet for a year or so as the captain for the almost-as-capable Chicago Crusaders.)

But just because he’d bid the Rens a bittersweet adieu, Fats was still raring to go on the baseball diamond, and just a couple months after the Renaissance’s historic success, Fats donned his baseball spikes yet again named manager of the Brooklyn Royal Giants baseball team in May ’39.

Reported the American Negro Press:

“From the offices of the Brooklyn Royal Giants comes an announcement which will be hailed with joy by the followers of baseball and basketball throughout the country.

“Clarence ‘Fats’ Jenkins, one of the most popular athletes of the diamond and court, has been named manager of this well known outfit of baseball players and will assume his duties immediately.

“‘Fats’ has been a member of the Renaissance basketball team for years and as such has established an outstanding reputation for speed and astuteness of play. For years, he was regarded as one of basketball’s greatest, he later blossomed out as an outfielder of the first degree.

“‘Fats’ was a star for several years with the Black Yankees and with his team won his reputation on the diamond. Keen of eye, fleet of foot, he was a major leaguer if there ever was one.

“In his new job, he will be a playing manager, filling one of the his outfield positions — there being no better than ‘Fats.’ He is expected to add power at the bat, defense in the field and color to the whole team.”

Throughout the ensuing spring, summer and fall, Jenkins piloted the barnstorming Royals against a packed slate of opponents from regional semipro teams like Union City, N.J.; the Bay Parkways of Brooklyn; Tremont, Pa.; and the East Chicago Colored Giants way out in Indiana.

New Journal and Guide, May 20, 1938

And for most of the places Jenkins and the Giants went that summer, his name, and their name, preceded them. Stated the Munster, Ind., Times newspaper in late June of that year:

“The Brooklyn Royal Giants are the oldest team in colored semi-pro ranks. The ‘Royals’ as they are known to the hundreds of thousands of baseball fans all over the country have successfully operated in the semi-pro ranks for over 35 years and have always had a good representative team. This season the team has been greatly strengthened and hopes to take the independent colored championship.”

In addition, a paper in Tremont, Pa., the West Schuykill Press and Pine Grove Herald (yes, that’s the full name, apparently), reported:

“Leading the brilliant array of colored stars will be Clarence Fat [sic] Jenkins [who] is well known to many Tremont fans as one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the cage game. ‘Fats’ manages the club and plays in the outfield. …

“The Brooklyn Royal Giants are strictly a road team and play over the entire country during the season. They are recognized as one of the finest dressed teams in the game with a reputation for gentlemanly conduct and plenty of pep and hustle.”

However, arguably the Royals’ biggest showdowns were against one of the preeminent white semipro teams in the country, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, who for nearly 40 years squared off against the best clubs in the region, included numerous clashes with the top Negro teams of the era as well as exhibitions against a galaxy of major league stars.

On July 30, 1939, one of New York’s most momentous semipro battles went down when the Bushwicks hosted the Royal Giants at the former’s illustrious Dexter Park. The Amsterdam News newspaper previewed the doubleheader thusly:

“The Royals recently have been touring the west and their record [illegible] is a procession of triumphs. The new pep of the club is directly traceable to the management of Jenkins, who has been performing in the outfield as well.

“Credit also should go to Jenkins’ [illegible] cleverness, for he has added to the roster several outstanding players. …”

Aside from the Bushwicks, one of the Royals’ other big encounters of the 1939 baseball season was a twin bill with the great Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City in June of that summer. Although the Bacharachs’ glory years had come and gone more than a decade earlier, their name still carried a hefty amount of cache.

The teams ended up splitting the doubleheader, with the Bees taking the top half, 9-7, and the Royals copping the nightcap, 1-0, in a thriller in which Jenkins scored the winning run. Over the two games Jenkins batted a cumulative 3-for-5, including a double and three runs scored, while hitting third in the order and patrolling left field.

Incidentally, at the end of the 1939 baseball season, Fats received plaudits not only for is on-field and on-court achievements, but also the result of those achievements — making bank. New Journal and Guide columnist Edgar Rouzeau, in his Oct. 7, 1939, entry, set out the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, as black America’s most well paid athlete, then listed Jenkins at No. 2, asserting that Fats was a hybrid of two of the sports world’s most renowned names.

The column actually takes a dour twist by pointing out that unlike Jenkins and Louis, the vast majority of black sportsters struggle financially, placing Fats in even more rarefied air. Rouzeau wrote:

“Perhaps I should pause right here and admit that we do have a combination of Babe Ruth and Joe Lopchick [sic] in that great money player, Fats Jenkins, whose name is synonymous with Negro professional baseball and basketball and whose earnings from sports compares [sic] favorably with the increments of some of the best paid whites.

“Among colored athletes, he is several laps ahead of the field and second only to [Louis], but the significant thing here is that Fats Jenkins had to be superlative in two sports to get rich.

“He has been for many years, and still is, the highest paid Negro baseball player. He only forfeited his right to the last title when he stepped out and bought a half-interest in the Brooklyn Royal Giants baseball team and blossomed out in the triple role of owner-player-manager.

“Fats, however, is an exception. He has been playing basketball and baseball for eighteen years and is still going strong.”

(Really quickly, Fats Jenkins, as captain of the Rens, squared off against Joe Lapchick, the superstar of the Original Celtics, who were the best white hoops team. For 15-plus years the Celtics and the Rens squared off in some epic clashes that have since become part of basketball lore.)

Aside from the generous but dubious claim that Jenkins was the best-paid African-American baseball player — with Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and other superstars still on the scene — Rouzeau’s column contains a bit of reverse foreshadowing. Contrary to still going strong, Fats was already winding down his playing career.

Just a month later, he’d announce his retirement from the Rens. Then the 1940 campaign would be his last as a baseball player to any real extent. While he returned to lead the Brooklyn Royal Giants, he for all intents and purposes hung up his player’s cleats, became a successful businessman, and settled into domestic life in Philly.

He seems to have remained on the baseball periphery and occasionally flitted in and out. In January 1947 the Cleveland Call & Post reported that Jenkins had signed on as business manager of the Cleveland Buckeyes; the paper asserted Fats’ “ability to know ball players has been one of the main factors of success in the Buckeye camp.”

Throughout his hardball (well, and hardwood) career, Fats quickly gained the approval, then the respect and finally the admiration of all who say him, including those in the press, who continually singled out his heady, smart, speedy play — the same skills and abilities he flashed on the basketball court.

The many scribes in the white/mainstream press certainly appreciated Jenkins. In June 1931, a reporter for the Central New Jersey Home News (the name of an actual newspaper in New Brunswick, N.J.), in previewing a barnstorming contest between a local team and the Black Yankees, called Jenkins “one of the most versatile colored professional athletes extant,” adding that “in addition to being an ideal lead-off man is as brainy a player as comes up the pike. He has speed to burn.”

Olean (N.Y.) Times Herald, Aug. 21, 1935

In June 1939, the Times newspaper of Munster, Ind. (in northwest Indiana, near Gary and a little ways from Chicago), in an article (the same one I quoted earlier) announcing a game between the Brooklyn Royal Giants and the East Chicago Colored Giants, stated:

“Clarence ‘Fats’ Jenkins is manager of the [Royal Giants] and is considered one of the smartest men in Negro baseball ranks. ‘Fats’ Jenkins has worked very hard this spring to gather together what he thinks will be the best ball club that has represented the Giants for quite some time. In addition to playing one of the outfield posts, ‘Fats’ was considered as one of the outstanding basketball players of all times. He captained and played with the World’s professional champions, the Renaissance Big Five … ‘Fats’ has the widest acquaintance of an Negro player in the country.”

If any cadre of journalists knew about Fats and his abilities, it’s the reporters and editors in Harrisburg, where Jenkins first made his name in baseball in the 1920s. In mid-summer 1942, Harrisburg Telegraph sports columnist Welly Jones said thusly as Fats arrived back in Harrisburg with a barnstorming semi-pro baseball team, the Dixie Daisies:

“One feature will be the presence of Fats Jenkins who manages the Daisies. He will be given a great welcome. Fat [sic] Jenkins was a star for several seasons on the champion Harrisburg Giants’ team. He also is a great basketball star and has been in Harrisburg a number of times. One interesting feature Fat [sic] Jenkins pulled off frequently was to bunt and beat the ball to first base. He was a speedy runner. As an outfielder he had very few equals.”

As skilled, adept and well known Jenkins was on the diamonds, it was on the hardwood that he truly distinguished himself, especially within the African-American community. He became a role model and a symbol of the best the black athletic realm could offer.

Fats Jenkins was revered in the black sports world, not just because he was multi-talented, multi-sport superstar, but also because he was dedicated, loyal, encouraging and witty. In short, it was just his athletic prowess that made he beloved by fans, teammates and journalists, but also his effervescent personality and sense of pride and honor.

Fats Jenkins died in Philadelphia in December 1968, five years after the Renaissance Big Five was inducted into the Basketball Hall as a team and four years before Satchel was inducted into the Baseball HOF as the first career Negro Leaguer ushered into Cooperstown.

I know this an abrupt end to this piece, but this post is already way too long, and my pal Ted Knorr summed everything up beautifully, so I’ll him conclude things. Said Ted:

“I do not have enough superlatives to truly capture Clarence ‘Fats’ Jenkins.”

End note 1: Ted added that on June 15, Fats Jenkins will be inducted into the Capital Area Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. Reported Ted: “I am humbled to be the stand in for Fats that evening. He will join his picket mates of the 1924-1927 Harrisburg Giants in such recognition.”

End note 2: This is the first in what will hopefully be a trilogy of posts centered on Xavier University of New Orleans and its athletic program. Hopefully Part 2 will come soon.

End note 3: I also must point out that Jenkins wasn’t the only Negro Leaguer who did double duty with the Rens. Bill Yancey balanced both in the 1920s and ’30s as well, but not to the same level of success as Fats. Yancey’s tale, while fascinating, is one I’ll leave for others to tell.

A mystery game in New Orleans

Louisiana Weekly, Oct. 9, 1948

Editor’s Note:This post was initially started as an article I was going to submit to a local New Orleans TV station, but that seems to be on hold for the time being, and since I had already started the piece, I figured that for now I’d flesh it for a blog post.

Since it started as a draft article for a TV station — which means a wider audience that might not be schooled in the basics of the Negro Leagues in New Orleans — the piece begins with a more formal, general interest tone than what I usually post on Home Plate Don’t Move.

I’m in no way done with the subject contained herein, and I’ll continue to build on this project, but I wanted to produce something tangible at this point but that could also be a launching pad for a follow up or two down the road, as well as publication in another medium or outlet. Enjoy!

In the first half of the 20th century, New Orleans had numerous brushes with baseball fame and significant influence on the national pastime across the country. Numerous hardball legends — including greats like Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays — thrilled Big Easy baseball nuts with their Herculean diamond exploits.

Just not the way you might think, however.

World Series games, All-Star contests and attendance at national league organizational confabs were staples of local hardball, but they happened behind the curtain of the color line.

Before Jackie Robinson and other African-American stars gradually integrated so-called organized baseball, including the major leagues, beginning in 1946, the all-black Negro Leagues arose and thrived in parallel to — but always separated from — the whites-only confines of organized baseball.

For decades, luminaries like Wesley Barrow, John Bissant, Walter Wright, Herman Roth and Herb Simpson plied their talented trade — at Pelican Stadium and other landmark Big Easy ballparks — on top-quality pro teams like the Black Pelicans, Crescent Stars, Caulfield Ads and Algiers Giants. These successful hardball endeavors were funded, fueled and founded by businessmen like Allen Page, Fred Caulfield and Walter Cohen.

And it wasn’t just local players, managers and owners who shined in segregation-era New Orleans black baseball — because of its warm climate and status as a major American city, New Orleans became a hotbed of national black ball activity.

Page created the North-South All-Star game that took place for a decade beginning in 1939, and he routinely promoted exhibition and league clashes between barnstorming, championship clubs like the famed Homestead Grays and Chicago American Giants. The New Orleans-St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League became the only major-level hardball team in Big Easy history. (More on Allen Page later.)

The city and surrounding area cultivated and produced such esteemed national stars like irascible third baseman Oliver “Ghost” Marcell, player/manager “Gentleman” Dave Malarcher, pennant-winning manager Winfield Welch and pitcher John Wright, who in early 1946 signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers — just a few months after Robinson did so — making Wright only the second African-American player to ink a contract with organized baseball.

Johnny Wright

And, in 1948, New Orleans was part of one of the most significant events in the history of segregation-era black baseball — the last Negro League World Series between the champions of the Negro National League and National American League.

It was the swan song of the NLWS because, with a torrent of African-American players integrating (and subsequently starring) in the major leagues, the Negro Leagues suffered crippling drops in press coverage, fan attendance and national importance. While all eyes were now on Robinson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella and other former black ball stars as they blazed trails in the majors, the Negro Leagues died a swift, painful death.

“That was the last Negro World Series,” Homestead Grays first baseman and National Baseball Hall of Famer Buck Leonard told author John Holway. “[Washington Senators owner Clark] Griffith’s prediction came true. After Negroes got in the big leagues, all the Negro fans wanted to go see the big-league teams. We’d get around 300 people to a game. We couldn’t even draw flies.”

In its own tragic way, the 1948 Negro League World Series between the NNL champion Homestead Grays and the NAL pennant-winning Birmingham Black Barons represented the last gasp of big-time African-American baseball before folding its tent, ironically the victim of civil rights and long-delayed integration of baseball and of American society as a whole. Willie Mays himself, in his autobiography, “Say Hey,” opined that black ball was dying a painful death, with words that nearly duplicated the comments Leonard gave Holway above:

“That was the last Negro World Series. After Negroes got into the big leagues, all the black fans wanted to go see the big-league teams. Ironically, blacks getting into major league baseball cost hundreds of other black players their jobs.”

In a retrospective published 40 years after the 1948 Negro World Series, a September 1988 article in the New York Times summed the situation up neatly:

“Branch Rickey changed that world overnight by bringing Robinson onto the Dodgers. No one who attended the 1948 Negro League series could have realized how fast support for black baseball was crumbling.

“In the fall of 1948, however, enough fan interest in black baseball remained for one last championship. The Grays, champions of the Negro National League were favored to beat the Birmingham (Ala.) Black Barons, winners of the Negro American League title. …”

The 1948 Negro League World Series served as such an important signpost of transition that it served as the subject of a 2018 book, “Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League Series,” and as well as the focus of the first annual Southern Negro League conference, held last summer in Birmingham.

And New Orleans stood front and center in that bittersweet baseball coda when it hosted one game of the series.

Or was it two games?

With its participation in the 1948 NLWS, the Crescent City became part of, thanks to newly uncovered research, an enduring mystery that resonates with the field of historical baseball scholarship and fandom.

1948 Birmingham Black Barons

As a preface, it’s important to note that, because of a lack of a strong, decisive league administration and financial security, black baseball was chronically unstable, with dozens of teams and numerous leagues coming and going over the decades.

Players frequently bailed on their contracts with one team to play for another, and, unlike organized baseball, the economic lifeblood of Negro League team was not official league contests but instead grueling, almost non-stop barnstorming across the country in which touring clubs often played seven or eight games a week practically in a different town every night.

Such exhibitions and unofficial all-star clashes helped keep black ball afloat, and it led to constantly changing game schedules and frequent uncertainty as to where the squads were headed next. Said Negro Southern League Museum founder and Executive Director Dr. Layton Revel:

“In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, promoters would make a bigger deal [of the run-up] in the media than than the game itself. So chances are, the game was played, but you never knew because there was no coverage after the game.”

He added:

“You’d have a promoter who was negotiating with numerous people for games. Allen Page would call up the owner of the Birmingham Black Barons and ask if [Page] could host a game and have preliminary discussions about a meeting. They’d try to be honest and forthright, but for some reasons the games would just never happen.”

The Negro League World Series was no exception to this rule throughout the series lifespan over the years. Even though it was supposedly the big capper to each Negro League season, the NLWS was certainly susceptible to curious scheduling.

“One strange feature of Negro world series games is that they are often played in cities which are not the home bases of either [pennant] winning club,” wrote Atlanta Daily World columnist Marion Jackson in the paper’s Sept. 28, 1948, edition.

These conditions became a significant factor in the 1948 NLWS, especially pertaining to New Orleans role in the series, a fact that would prove both crucial and confusing during the first week of October 1948.

Because, as it unfolded, Game 4 was originally slated to take place in Birmingham’s Rickwood Park, but that city’s white team, the Birmingham Barons, took precedence at the stadium after advancing to the Southern Association championship series.

Rickwood Field

That sudden development left the Grays and Black Barons scrambling to find last-minute arrangements for Game 4. The solution: shift the fourth contest to New Orleans, which was halfway close geographically, featured an excellent baseball stadium and had a large, sports-loving fan base to fill the stands.

An example of the volatility of game schedules in the Negro Leagues and the spontaneous nature of the leagues occurred to Grays pitcher Wilmer Fields following Game 3, which was in Birmingham. According to the book, “Willie’s Boys,” by John Klima, Fields didn’t even know that Game 4 had been shifted to New Orleans, forcing him to drive 25 straight hours from his home in Virginia down to the Big Easy.

(In the appendices at the end of this, I have Klima’s entire recounting of the events in a larger excerpt; I decided to put it after the main essay because the passage is really long, and including it here would make this screed even more droning that it is now.)

So, on Oct. 3, the clubs took to the diamond at Pelican Stadium — which had, coincidentally, been purchased earlier in the year by the Pittsburgh Pirates, the parent team of the white New Orleans Pelicans — at what is now the southeast corner of the Carrollton Avenue-Tulane Avenue intersection to clash once again. It turned out to be a cake walk for the Grays as they pounded the Barons, 14-1, to take a commanding 3-1 league in the series.

Those facts are (generally) undisputed.

It’s that fifth game that’s suddenly become a quandary for Negro League scholars. The prevailing wisdom — including a recent book on the 1948 NLWS — has for a couple decades states that Game 5  was played two days later on Oct. 5 in Birmingham. With their 10-6 victory, the scholarship goes, the Grays — playing at the tail end of a dynastic domination of the Negro League playoffs that ran for a decade — thus garnered the World Series crown, the last in black baseball baseball.

Pelican Stadium

“Not that there was any doubt about it from the beginning,” wrote Dizzy Dismukes, Chicago Defender reporter and former star pitcher and manager in black baseball, “but the Washington Homestead Grays won undisputed possession of the Negro World’s Baseball Championship title by defeating the Birmingham Black Barons 10-6 in the fifth and final game of the Negro World Series … Oct. 5.”

But newly uncovered contemporary coverage by multiple New Orleans newspapers asserted that Game 5 actually took place not in Birmingham, as previously thought, but in the Big Easy on Oct. 4. According to reports in both the Times-Picayune and the Louisiana Weekly, the Grays clinched the series on that day on Pelican Stadium, by an 8-2 count.

“The Grays won the series,” stated the Oct. 9, 1948, Weekly, “taking four of five games played between the two nines, and are the new world champions of sepia baseball.”

This “mystery game” was also promoted in the New Orleans press before in took place as the official fifth game. Stated the Oct. 4, 1948, issue of the New Orleans Item, “The Homestead Grays can put an end to the Negro World series tonight [Oct. 4] at Pelican Stadium if they can turn back the Birmingham Black Barons …”

But, because no actual box scores of any of those games have yet been uncovered — which, in theory, would go a long way toward providing answers to this enigma — there’s no way to definitively prove what happened during the series, including where the games were played and who was specifically involved.

“A box score or a line score is the most important piece,” Revel said. “If you say a guy played on a team, I want to see a box score that shows he was a player with that team.”

Birmingham World, Oct. 1, 1948

Larry Lester, a multiple-award-winning author and chairman of the Negro Leagues Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research, said the lack of box scores severely hinders the search for the truth, adding that researchers must keep digging.

“The box scores or game accounts of 1948 World Series are out there somewhere,” Lester said. “They will not be found if we assume they don’t exist.”

Dr. Raymond Doswell, vice president for curation at the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, said he hesitates to even comment officially given the lack of clarity on the issue.

(A representative from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., said such box scores couldn’t be found in the archives there.)

Richard Puerzer, in the book “Bittersweet Goodbye,” detailed each game in the 1948 Negro World Series, and his account of Game 5 follows the narrative of an 10-6 victory by the Grays in Birmingham on Oct. 5.

Klima’s book recounts the 1948 NLWS game by game in detail, with his volume asserting that Game 5 took place in Birmingham — the supposed 10-6 clinching win for the Grays — and not in NOLA. (His write up of Game 4 does place that contest in New Orleans, as reported by all contemporary and modern accounts.)

Klima also notes what other historians have lamented — the lack of coverage and blow-by-blow accounts.

“Details were scant in papers around the country,” he writes, “as black newspapers dedicated their space to the major league World Series,” in which former Negro League stars Satchel Paige and Larry Doby were playing for the Cleveland Indians.

But what about those who were actually there? Would anyone who participated in the 1948 NLWS be able to offer a first-person account?

Aside from Mays, only one person involved in the 1948 series remains alive — 94-year-old and Alabama native Bill Greason, a pitcher on the Black Barons at the time. Greason, as it turns out hurled the only game an overwhelmed Birmingham won in the series, a 10-9, 11-inning nailbiter in Birmingham Sept. 30. (Greason also eventually made it to the bigs, albeit briefly, appearing on the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals for a handful of games in 1954.)

Bill Greason

In a phone interview with me in January, Greason, now a minister in the Birmingham area, said that because the events happened more than 70 years ago, his recollection is fuzzy at best.

“I don’t remember too much,” Greason said. “It was a bit of a long time ago.”

Greason also said he doesn’t remember ever playing in New Orleans at any point during his career.

However, Greason was the guest of honor at last summer’s Southern Negro League conference in Birmingham, and in October he gave an interview to WBHM, the public radio station in Birmingham. During the interview, Greason alluded that only one game of the ’48 series was held in Birmingham. Greason said:

“Well, it was a good series. The only thing was we didn’t play all the games in one place. We went from one place to another. I don’t quite remember all of the places. They beat us four games to one, and I won the only game here in Birmingham, in relief.”

The comment seems to discount the possibility that Game 5, the clinching game for the games, was not played in Birmingham after all. However, it also doesn’t confirm that the contest was played in New Orleans, either.

Also muddying the matter are several articles that were written decades after the 1948 series asserting that both the fourth and fifth games took place in New Orleans, including a 1988 piece in the New York Times about the city of Pittsburgh celebrating the legacy of the Grays.

Another theory, now that this new information has been discovered, is that the game played on Oct. 4 at Pelican Stadium was deemed an exhibition contest, which had been decided either before or after it was played, with the Oct. 5 contest at Rickwood Field in Birmingham serving as the last official game of the series.

Ed Steele

If this was the case, no record has been found revealing exactly when it was decided that the Oct. 4 game would be played, or when and why those involved declared it an exhibition. One possible reason for this chain of events could be that, as stated earlier, exhibition games presented a chance for additional, much needed revenue for the teams and for the league.

But what was the Birmingham media’s take on the swan song of the Negro World Series? We can look at the series chronology as presented by the city’s African-American newspaper, the Birmingham World, for glimpse at Alabama’s coverage.

Like the reportage from every other news source, the World placed the first game of the ’48 series as a win by the Grays in Kansas City, followed by two contests at Rickwood, the first won by the Grays, the second, i.e. Game 3, claimed by the Black Barons.

It should be noted that, like other black ball fans, folks in Birmingham apparently grew frustrated with the lack of information reaching the public about the 1948 series, perhaps another example of the lessening importance placed on the Negro Leagues and their season-capping title series.

In the Sept. 24, 1948, World, columnist Emory O. Jackson voiced the discontent felt by those who did still follow the Negro Leagues, especially the dedicated Black Barons fans, by zinging a critique at Barons owner Tom Hayes:

“When President Tom Hayes, Jr. returns to Birmingham he will find some of the fans burning mad at him for not rushing the playoff scores back to the franchise city. Fans had to pick up the scores from the wives and sweethearts of Birmingham players. Birmingham fans deserve better treatment than this.”

A week later, Jackson then highlighted the seat-of-the-pants nature of the planning for Negro World Series that plagued the 1948 series from the beginning. In the Oct. 1, 1948, issue of the World, after reporting on the Grays’ 5-3 win in Game 2 at Rickwood on Sept. 29, Jackson reported that there “was uncertainty Wednesday night surrounding where the fourth game of the series would be played. The [white] Dixie Series forced the cancellation of the Sunday afternoon [Oct. 3, ostensibly planned as Game 4] ] edition of the Series.”

The World did not provide detailed, direct coverage of Game 3, held at Rickwood on Sept. 30 (probably because of the paper’s production schedule and deadlines), and offered just a paragraph — a news brief, really — on Game 4 now being slated for New Orleans, not Birmingham.

Fans at Rickwood

Adding to the confusion was that, while this news blurb was, like Jackson’s column, was published in the World’s Oct. 1 issue, the two reports were presented in separate articles, with the brief stating that “[t]he Grays and Black Barons will go to New Orleans Sunday for the fourth game of the Negro World series. The two teams will return to Rickwood Field Thursday night for the fifth game The remainng [sic] games, if needed to settle the best four-of-seven series, will be played at the same spot.”

Confused yet? This bit of fuzziness reveals yet another reason for the confusion floating around the NLWS (and, indeed, the entire history of black baseball), its scheduling and its reportage — the bi-weekly or weekly nature of the African-American press at the time.

Because many black papers published only once or maybe twice a week (with a few exceptions being published daily), the media’s coverage of any given sporting event or events was often scattershot, jumpy, and poorly organized.

The journalistic murkiness was further stirred by the small staffs employed by each African-American papers, especially on the sports desk. Financial realities often limited the amount of money the papers could allot to salaries, leaving the sports departments (such as they were) to scramble to get everything covered and published in any sort of coherent way. They did the absolute best they could, and they thoroughly loved what they did, but frequently they simply couldn’t keep up with everything.

(At many black papers, sports writers or editors double or even tripled as music and entertainment columnists, news reporters, copy editors or even distribution supervisors. For example, in the 1930s, Louisiana Weekly sports editor Eddie Burbridge, in addition to writing a couple sports columns a week and also providing straight reportage on athletic events — he was particularly fond of boxing — churned out a weekly nightlife column and performed all his editing duties, a slate of responsibilities that was undoubtedly grueling. Burbridge used the experience he gained in New Orleans to move West and helped found and edit the Los Angeles Sentinel.)

So, at this point, the Birmingham World has placed Game 4 as being slated for New Orleans on Oct. 3, meaning the newspaper’s timeline matches up, if awash in some vagaries, with other chronicles of the series.

Jimmy Newberry

At that point, the World seems to have dropped the ball (pun possibly intended) with its coverage of the series’ final contests. I was unable to locate any actual reportage of Game 4 in New Orleans — not a box score, not a line score, no scores or simple result of any kind at all — in the World, with Emory Jackson simply stating, almost in passing, that the series had “moved to Birmingham for games last Wednesday [Sept. 29] and Thursday night [Sept. 30 ], and on to New Orleans Sunday [Oct. 3]. It will remain at Rickwood until it is finished.”

In the Oct. 5 issue of the paper, Jackson further reported that “[b]arring bad weather, the fifth game of what is labeled the Negro World Series will be played under the lights at Rickwood Field.

In the same edition (Oct. 5), the World made it clear that, according to the information it had at that time, Game 5 was slated for that night, Oct. 5, at Rickwood, not in New Orleans as had been reported by the media in New Orleans — the World placed a thin, page-wide add on the bottom of Page 1 stating such.

That’s the Birmingham World ad. I apologize for the tiny image.

But then, simply piling onto the building mountain of lingering mystery about this final Negro World Series, the World proceeded to relegate further mention of this Oct. 5 Game 5 to a passing paragraph in an article in the outlet’s Oct. 8 edition that was mostly about … the upcoming exhibition doubleheader between the Black Barons and the Indianapolis Clowns. The paper reported:

“The Black Barons lost to the Homestead Grays, 10 to 6, in ten innings, last Tuesday night [Oct. 5] at Rickwood. The lost [sic] knocked them out of the Negro World Series, giving the Grays four games to one.”

Thus ended the Birmingham World’s coverage of the 1948 Negro League World Series, with the addendum that the same article about the Barons-Clowns conflagration, the paper noted that the exhibition would be followed by a play-by-play broadcast of organized baseball’s World Series game between the Cleveland Indians and Boston Braves.

Such a staging reflects, quite directly, the fact that the attentions of black baseball fans was quickly shifting from the dying Negro Leagues, to organized baseball, where integration was accelerating at a rapid rate. The Indians featured a multiracial roster that including former Negro Leaguers and future Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Satchel Paige.

(Just as the 1948 NLWS proved to be a signpost of of black ball’s passing, the Indians’ triumph in the MLB World Series became a landmark, a watershed in American sports history — the Tribe’s triumph marked the first time an integrated athletic team had won a professional world championship in the country, in any sport. Cleveland’s ’48 crown represents the Indians’ last World Series win, setting off a seven-decades-plus title drought that currently stands as the longest current MLB dry spell.)

Just to round out the national coverage of the last NLWS, here’s the Pittsburgh Courier’s report on its hometown Grays capturing the crime. Stated the Oct. 16, 1948, issue of the Courier:

“The Homestead Grays are the new champions of Negro baseball today! Climaxing an uphill drive that saw the Homesteaders faced with disaster numerous times, the Grays, nevertheless, showed their wares at Birmingham Thursday night by coming through in the tenth inning of the fifth game of the series and scoring four runs that enabled them to be crowned once again the ‘kings of baseball.’

“For nine gruelling innings the Birmingham Black Barons put up the stiffest kind of battle in a desperate attempt to carry the series into another game. But in the first half of the tenth inning bedlam broke loose. The Grays, combining three walks with three timely hits, broke the game wide open and were able to coast in during the last half of the tenth inning.”

With all of this contemporary coverage of the ’48 series providing few clear-cut answers, but the consensus among pundits at the time seems to have been that Game 5 occurred in Birmingham. However, over the ensuing decades, other, more current chronicles of the last NLWS and of the two teams involved seem to support for the notion that the fifth game was, in fact, in New Orleans, not Birmingham. Here’s an excerpt from the aforementioned September 1988 New York Times article:

“Because black fans lacked the money to support a series in one city, the next two games were played in Pelican Stadium in New Orleans. Luke Easter, who later would play for the Cleveland Indians, hit a grand slam for the Grays to beat the Barons, 4-1. The Grays won the series on Oct. 5, 1948, having been unable to play a single series game before their hometown fans.”

The bolding was mine, because that phrase indicates just as it states — the final two games of the series, it says, happened in NOLA.

But then a 1990 article by Daniel Cattau recalled the score of Game 5 — a 10-6 win for the Grays, as stated by many contemporary reports — but he doesn’t explicitly say where that game took place. Cattau wrote:

“The Grays won the first game in Kansas City, and the teams split the next two games in Birmingham. Because of poor crowds, they moved to New Orleans’s Pelican Stadium, where Easter hit a grand slam in a 14-1 Grays win. On October 5, the Grays broke open a tie game with four runs in the 10th inning to take the title. Black newspapers devoted a few paragraphs to the game.”

Here’s where we come back to one important figure who seems to have been noticeably absent from the staging of the 1948 Negro World Series — New Orleans sports impresario Allen Page. The owner of the now-gone Page Hotel on Dryades Street was a linchpin in the black community for several decades as an entrepreneur and philanthropist, but Page was arguably best known for his role as New Orleans’ greatest promoter of African-American sports.

Page’s career and his success as an entrepreneur and a baseball man would also, as we’ll see, reflect on his significant impact on the national black ball seen — and also make one wonder why Page seems to have played little or no role in the 1948 NLWS.

In addition to promoting boxing matches and other athletic events, Page owned several Negro Leagues teams over the years, including incarnations of the New Orleans Black Pelicans, and as a promoter he brought dozens of star-studded, top-level Negro Leagues teams for exhibitions.

Many autumns, following the conclusion of the regular season, Page hosted touring all-star squads that included such luminaries like Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, and as a sports impresario Page became a major player on the national stage, attending several meetings of Negro National League and Negro Southern League officials over the decade.

Louisiana Weekly reporter Charles de Lay wrote of Page in 1948:

“A veteran of the national sport, Allen Page’s executive ability is in demand in baseball administrative circles. His desire to bring the best in baseball to the Crescent City has found him taking many financial TKOs, nevertheless his optimistic outlook presumes that support (attendance) deserving the superlative attractions he brings to Pelican Stadium annually will be forthcoming ‘around the corner.’”

However, even though Page was doubtlessly the most important figure in New Orleans Negro Leagues history, his name is noticeably absent from media coverage of the 1948 Negro World Series, including the games held in the Crescent City.

Rodney Page, Allen’s son, said that by the end of the 1940s, his father was approaching 60 and getting ready to call it a career; the elder Page eventually moved to Los Angeles to enjoy his retirement.

“My dad was probably in his mid-50s [by 1948],” Rodney Page said. “Things were winding down.”

The spring and summer of 1948 found Allen Page occupied with one of his latter-day clubs, the New Orleans Creoles, a late addition to the Negro Southern League (which was comparable to the upper minor-league levels in Organized Baseball). Stated the Louisiana Weekly on May 15, 1948:

“Allen Page, known to local baseball fans as a topnotch promoter in the colored baseball world, has really pulled one from his bag of baseball trick.

“Until this writing, local dopesters and typewriter jockeys of the sports fraternity were under the impression that Page would not have a team this year. But the promoter stated … that the Creoles had been having their spring training along the Florida coast for the past five weeks, and are expected to be in fine shape when the boys face the Atlanta [Black Crackers] club this week end.”

The Creoles more than held their own during the ’48 campaign — they ended up nabbing the league crown after winning both halves of the regular season (although game figures and results seem to be somewhat vague).

“I do appreciate the support that loyal fans have given me during past baseball seasons,” Page told Louisiana Weekly columnist Charles de Lay in May 1948. “And with their cooperation in the future, I am hoping that we can put the Negro Southern League on a sound footing.”

And Page, despite getting up there in age, further displayed his clout on the national stage after the NSL season wound down by arranging a series of exhibitions between his Creoles and two NAL stalwarts, the Cleveland Buckeyes and the New York Black Yankees, each of which slated its own doubleheader with the Creoles

But throughout the 1948 baseball season, Page scheduled and hosted numerous exhibitions aside from those involving the Creoles, including a double bill between the Chicago American Giants and the Indianapolis Clowns in May.

A week later by a momentous twin bill between the baseball Harlem Globetrotters and Satchel Paige’s Kansas City All Stars, led by Cool Papa Bell and, ostensibly, Satch himself. (Paige hadn’t yet made his major league debut with the Indians, which came in July.) The barnstorming blockbuster clubs ended up splitting the ’header; Satchel hurled the first three innings in the twilight contest, getting touched for five hits and a run.

Further evidence culled from the 1948 baseball season of the pull that Allen Page — and New Orleans in general — flexed on a national scale came on Sept. 26, when Page, Pelican Stadium and the Big Easy welcomed dozens of top-flight regional and national black ball stars for an annual tradition that has gone criminally overlooked by historians and Negro Leagues fan — the North-South All-Star Game.

Louisiana Weekly, 

Birthed by Page in 1939 the North-South clash became a postseason companion game to the famed East-West All-Star Game, which was generally held in Chicago and attracted the Negro Leagues’ biggest crowds of the year and a slew of media attention by gathering the best players and managers black ball had to offer.

The North-South contest also took place annually, usually after the end of the “regular season” for the Negro Leagues, and while it didn’t quite have the star power of the East-West gathering, the North-South became the highlight of the hardball season in the deep South as well as a source of pride for the Big Easy, Page and the city’s African-American sport community.

The North-South frequently featured a “North” team comprised of several top Negro National League stars facing off at Pelican Stadium against an aggregation of Negro American League and Negro Southern League luminaries. Some of the players on the teams were, after integration, either imminently headed to or just returning from a stint the majors.

But just as important for the New Orleans black society, the all-star conflagration included sponsorship, advertising, in-kind services and other financial support from the African-American business community. High profile civic organizations — such as the longshoremen’s association and other unions, and the People’s Defense League — boosted the annual game’s profile and economic impact.

Pat Scantlebury

The 1948 edition of the North-South took place on Sept. 26 at Pelican Stadium. The North club was packed with pitchers, including Jose Santiago, Dave “Impo” Barnhill and Pat Scantlebury (all of the New York Cubans), and Max Manning of the Newark Eagles; and a lineup studded with future major league stars Monte Irvin (then with the Newark Eagles) and Orestes Minoso (then with the New York Cubans and soon to be dubbed Minnie), as well as hard-hitting, slick-fielding Negro League stalwarts Lyman Bostock (Cubans), Tommy Sampson (Cubans) and Lester Lockett (Baltimore Elite Giants).

While the North aggregation might have carried more baseball heavyweights, it arguably was the South team that represented the effort invested in the game, as well as the influence Page and New Orleans had on black baseball below the Mason-Dixon line, especially the deep South.

While the South’s roster was to include two eventual National Baseball Hall of Famers in pitcher Hilton Smith (who was just about at the conclusion of his stellar career) and slugger Willard Brown (a Louisiana native and, briefly, a St. Louis Brown), the squad featured a cluster of Southern kids who were either from the Pelican State and/or played with Page’s Creoles, including pitchers Gene Bremer, Amos Watson and Tom Purvis, as well as shortstop Billy Horne, outfielder Buddy Armour and third sacker T.J. Brown.

Wrote de Lay in the lead-up to the game:

“The forthcoming ’48 staging of the annual North-South diamond classic by promoter Allen Page promises to eclipse all previous all-star baseball extravaganzas of the local horsehide impresario. According to Page, several of the brilliant recruits of major league clubs, who have been ‘farmed out’ for further grooming, will be among the galaxy of baseball stars to display their talents here at Pelican Stadium on September 26.”

Predictably, the stacked North squad beat the Southerners, 5-2, but thousands of fans were drawn to the Crescent City spectacle nonetheless.

Finally, as a coda on the Page story and his activities in 1948, while the dean of New Orleans black ball seems to have been absent from the machinations of the NLWS, he nonetheless proved his influence — and the city’s influence — on the national Negro League landscape when he hosted and promoted a stop in the Crescent City by the Robinson-Campanella All-Stars and Negro League All-Stars, two squads that were pursuing the common, and quite lucrative, practice of postseason barnstorming tours across the country.

Louisiana Weekly, Oct. 23, 1948

Brooklyn Dodgers standouts Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, both fresh off their second year in the majors after beginning their pro careers in the Negro Leagues, led their high-profile aggregation as it arrived in New Orleans on Oct. 17, the Negro League all-star squad in tow, for an exhibition at Pelican Stadium.

With Page orchestrating the contest and more than 13,000 fans jamming the ballpark, the Dodgers stars’ squad topped the blackball aggregation, 12-7.

(The Negro Southern-American Leagues team featured, among other stars like Scantlebury and Barnhill, catcher Pepper Bassett, a Baton Rouge native and a solid backstop known for catching games in a rocking chair. Bassett was making his second trip of the month to New Orleans — he was on the roster of the Black Barons team that played in the NLWS just a few weeks before.)

Apologies for this lengthy digression, but it’s truly key to understanding the overall Negro Leagues scene in New Orleans, its overlooked importance, and the immense role Allen Page filled in the Crescent City African-American sportive community. For at least 20 years, no black sports — from baseball to boxing — occurred in New Orleans without his involvement on some level.

Which makes his apparent absence from the 1948 World Series all the more puzzling, and which might explain why the games were so unsettled and mysterious.

Louisiana Weekly, April 3, 1948

One final piece to the 1948 puzzle, at least as far as New Orleans and the participants of the last Negro League World Series go, was the face that both the Grays and Black Barons had appeared in the Big Easy multiple times earlier that season, attesting to the popularity of the city as a spring training tour destination and as a perfect locale for profitable exhibition contests.

In mid-April, for example, the Grays confronted the defending Negro League world champions, the New York Cubans (headed by Hall of Fame owner Alex Pompez, a good friend of Allen Page and a familiar face in N’Awlins).

However, it was the Black Barons who were popular faces in New Orleans. The Birmingham boys played both a slew of exhibitions and NAL games in the Big Easy just about every year; with the cities a relatively short distance apart (roughly 350 miles, which, in the Negro Leagues-starved South, was just a hop, skip and jump), the cities’ shared a deep historical connect.

And actually, Mays himself expressed how popular a barnstorming stop the Big East was for the Black Barons. Mays wrote in his autobiography:

“New Orleans was one of our favorite stops. We could go in the back of the bus station there and eat. They had black cooks and black waitresses and they got to know us and gave us special service when we hit town. One time when a bunch of us were eating in the back, the service must have got a little slow in the front. The customers started to complain and the manager came back where we were eating and yelled at our waitress that she was taking too much time in the back and not enough in the front. She took off her apron, placed it over a chair, and walked out the door without saying a word.”

Not only did the Black Barons frequently visit New Orleans for various games, but several New Orleans and Louisiana natives got their first taste of big-time Negro League ball in Birmingham. Napoleonville, La., native Winfield Welch, for example, hopped up to the Alabama burg to manage the Barons following successful stints as a team owner and manager in the Crescent City. After leading an array of N’Awlins-based clubs, Welch went on to lead the Black Barons to consecutive NAL crowns in 1943 and ’44. (As it happened, they lost to the Grays in those seasons’ Negro World Series.)

JP Spencer

Other Pelican State luminaries to make the jump from the diamonds of New Orleans to Birmingham included Bassett, J.B. Spencer, Ducky Davenport, Roy Parnell and Herman Roth; Spencer went on to man second base for several Grays’ teams during their dynastic run of NNL titles, while Davenport eventually became a stalwart in the outer garden for the Chicago American Giants.

Thus, given this strong history, it wasn’t a surprise that that Black Barons played no less than six games in New Orleans throughout the 1948 campaign. In late April, they shut out the Indianapolis Clowns, 3-0, in front of 5,000-plus fans at Pelican Stadium. Then, a month and a half later, the guys from the Magic City nipped the Memphis Red Sox, 3-1, at the same ballpark. In another whistle stop in the Crescent City, on June 23 the Barons split a ’header with the the American Giants at Pelican Stadium, and on Aug. 22 the Birmingham boys lost both ends of a twin bill to the defending NLWS crownholding New York Cubans.

Finally — and I know I’ve already said that word at least 729 so far in this article — New Orleans’ aptitude for attracting significant star power, in May none other than Satchel Paige brought his own band of barnstorming all stars to NOLA for an exhibition against another tirelessly touring team, the baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters.

On May 9, the Globetrotters — a top-quality aggregation that included, among others, New Orleans native (and my old buddy) Herb Simpson — topped Satch’s club, 9-7 in the front end of a doubleheader, with Charley McLarwin clubbing a game-winning grand slam in the ninth inning. Paige’s club managed to split the twin bill by claiming the second game, 3-1, in an abbreviated seven-inning match.

Y’all know this guy.

(It can be noted that the ageless Paige wasn’t the slinger who gave up that blast — that ignominious “honor” went to a flinger named Butler — but also was underwhelming that day during his tenure on the mound, at least according to de Lay, who write that ol’ Satch was “the man who still packs ’em in, although merely a shadow of the once invincible slabman …” I’m uncertain if de Lay’s assessment of Satchel lasted the whole season through, given that Paige went on to join the Cleveland Indians and help the Tribe to the 1948 (MLB) World Series title by absolutely killing it on the mound for the Indians.)

All of that — the entire recap of the 1948 black ball season — hopefully provides ample evidence demonstrating why New Orleans was a more important, big-time player in Negro Leagues history, and why would those involved in the NLWS would have viewed the Big Easy as a  logical place to hold at least one game of that year’s Negro League World Series.

With all that rambling mess said, we jump ahead (somewhat jarringly, I admit) to the aftermath of the Grays’ 1948 NLWS triumph over the Black Barons in October of that year.

The members of both the Barons and Grays scattered asunder for the rest of the fall and into the winter. Several players skedaddled for Mexico, Cuba Puerto Rico or other climes south to play some pro ball during the Negro Leagues off-season.

However, a handful of the Black Barons, including Mays, landed one of the sweetest black ball gigs of the postseason — a spot on a barnstorming tour with an aggregation known as Jackie Robinson’s All-Stars.

Led by Robinson and his Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Roy Campanella, the club traveled with another team, this one consisting of mostly Southern stars and talent from the NAL and NSL. Winfield Welch headed these Southern All-Stars; the Napoleonville, La., native and NAL pennant winning skipper plucked a bunch of Barons standouts — such as Jimmy Newberry, Lyman Bostock, Pepper Bassett, John Britton and Ed Steele — for the task.

Piper Davis

Piper Davis, who succeeded Welch as Birmingham’s manager and guided the 1948 team, arranged for the teenage Mays to play one game with the Southern troupe, when the tour came to Rickwood Park on October 12, and the fresh-faced youth gave the crowd of roughly 7,000 fans a show — he clubbed a double, one of the only two hits Davis’ wards nicked that night.

Five days later, the all-star roadshow arrived in New Orleans for an exhibition at Pelican Stadium on Oct. 17. The showcase was arranged and promoted by our old friend Allen Page, who staged the game as one last hurrah for the ’48 baseball season. Wrote Louisiana Weekly columnist Charles de Lay in the Oct. 16, 1948, issue of the paper:

“All paths will lead to Pelican Stadium comes [sic] Sunday afternoon … Brooklyn’s brilliant diamond aces — Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella — are slated to cavort … with their All-Star nine in a game with the American and Southern League All-Stars.

“The two teams are presently touring the country on a post-season barnstorm, and come to New Orleans through the efforts of genial Promoter Allen Page. It is up to local baseball fans to prove to Page that the appearances of top-ranking baseball nines locally are attractions worthy of his efforts. How? Supporting the venture with a record attendance worthy of the attraction.”

And support they did — a crowd nearly twice the size as the one that turned out at Rickwood five days earlier for an energized afternoon of hardball. The match was covered for the Weekly by Clement Mac Williams, who gushed about the event. He penned:

“The largest baseball crowd — 13,100 — in many moons jammed every available seat in Pelican last Sunday to pay tribute to two of the nation’s outstanding diamond stars — Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella of the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers.

“Robinson and his teammate brought a star-studded group of ball players from the Negro National League to town to face an all-star team composed of players from the American and Southern Negro Leagues. The visitors triumphed, 12-7, and the fans who came to see their heroes perform were not disappointed as they sparkled afield and at bat.”

Of course, the barnstorming jaunt wouldn’t have happened if its backers didn’t think it would produce revenue for all involved; Klima called the tour “a racket … pure cash cow games.”

Barnstorming tours, all-star games and much-hyped exhibitions would soon become more and more of familiar events, as once-thriving Negro Leagues teams lost their league affiliations or closed up shop altogether. Those that managed to persevere needed to hit the road for months at a time, playing wherever they could to scrape up some revenue, while all-star tours also crisscrossed the country as well.

Louisiana Weekly, Oct. 16, 1948

After the 1948 Negro World Series, the inevitable was plainly evident — the proud, resilient black ball circuits  were on their last legs, with collapse and a slide into irrelevance dead ahead.

In fact, the great Homestead Grays, who produced arguably the greatest dynasty in professional baseball history and featured several eventual Hall-of-Fame players, folded before 1948 had concluded. The Grays’ folded by the end of the decade, and the folding of the proud Negro National League, with several NNL teams joining the NAL, which itself died out by the end of the 1950s. The Barons’ last season was 1954.

Homestead Grays legendary first sacker Buck Leonard knew the end was nigh for the Negro Leagues, but he told author John Holway that, looking back, 1948 was special:

“When you play twenty-three years, you know, you’ve had a lot of thrills. But I think the greatest one was when we won the Negro World Series from Birmingham in 1948. That was one of our best teams — maybe our greatest team — although Josh Gibson wasn’t with us, he was dead. But we had Luke Easter, Luis Marquez and Roy Welmaker. Welmaker also went to the Cleveland Indians, and Marquez went to the Boston Braves.”

Many in the African-American media were dour and even downright cynical and gloomy, an attitude reflected not affected more stringently than by the Atlanta Daily World’s Marion Jackson. The ADW provided the most coverage,aside from the Birmingham World, to the 1948 Negro World Series, and even the Atlanta paper’s attention was largely commentary laden with criticism, led by Jackson.

In his Oct. 1 column, Jackson dismissed the NLWS as erratically produced and, as a result, practically irrelevant.

“Such messy business is the reason Negro baseball has a blackeye,” he wrote.

He elaborated in an ensuing column, pointedly noting the emergency scramble for a neutral ballpark midway through the NLWS, a harried search that brought the series to New Orleans:

“Nothing could more vividly demonstrate the futility of Negro baseball than the comedy of errors which took place at Birmingham, Ala., where the Birmingham Black Barons were scheduled to meet the Homestead Grays in the second game of the Negro World Series. The white Birmingham Barons meeting the Nashville Vols in the Southern Association playoffs were off using Rickwood Field, when the Barons and Grays arrived for the series competition. Therefore the Negro World Series has been indefinitely delayed because no other diamond is available. We can’t have organized baseball until we own parks and control their use. This should be a lesson and a warning!!!”

Wire service reporter and Birmingham World sports editor Emory Jackson piled on and was downright insulting. When writing about one of the ’48 series games, the latter Jackson snuck in a potshot, describing it as “the so-called Negro World Series.”


(I included a long excerpt from one of Emory Jackson’s columns in the appendices in which he rails at length against the lack of black-owned ballparks and how the problem was crippling Negro League baseball.)

But it wasn’t all bad. Black baseball’s imminent decline, however, proved to realize the important of the 1948 NLWS and to appreciate that they were part of something special.

“The 1948 Black Barons was the best team I ever played on,” Greason told the Birmingham News in 1995. “We won the [NAL] championship and played the Homestead [Grays] in the Negro World Series. We didn’t win the Series, but that was one of the finest groups of men I ever played with.”

Wiley Griggs

Other Black Barons agreed. Former Black Baron Wiley Griggs said in a 1995 interview for the Birmingham Public Library that taking part in the 1948 NLWS was a thrill of a lifetime, despite their 4-1 loss in games.

“My favorite memory was when we were playing the World Series in ’48,” Griggs said. “Those were the best games.”

It was the whole Negro Leagues experience that allowed former players, managers and owners to look back with fondness, as Black Barons pitcher Sam Williams, who was on the 1948 Birmingham squad, later told author Brent Kelley:

“One thing that I liked about it, we were a very close group of fellas. There was no animosity or nothin’. We were just like a bunch of brothers. I always tell people that was the best team I ever played on, as far as personnel. We all got along just like brothers. We were a close-knit group and that meant a lot to me. Under the conditions we were travelin’ — busses and changin’ clothes in busses at the ballpark — everybody pitched in, nobody grumbled. All we wanted to do was play ball. That was the highlight of my career, them bus rides.

“We look back on it and we say that was real tough, but, you know, we got to where we was enjoyin’ it. We would look forward to it because we knew we had to play and pack our bags and get on the bus and ride to the next city. That became a routine.”

For Mays, Klima wrote, the 1948 World Series represented arguably his best experience as part of a team, around friends and mentors. Klima stated:

“When Mays grew up in the next few years, he understood more than he showed. He knew that the men he loved, his 1948 Black Barons, the players who treated him like a little brother and an only child, had watched their careers slip into oblivion. Mays became a businessman after the 1948 season, and though he was still maturing, he knew he had to get out of the Negro Leagues if he wanted to survive. He seemed never to have found such camaraderie again.”

Which brings us, at long, overdue last, to the question of exactly how the chronology of the 1948 Negro League World Series down, and where the events took place. Were there two games played in NOLA (Games 4 and 5), or was it just one? Where did the Grays clinch the crown — New Orleans or Birmingham? And when did they clinch it — Oct. 4, 1948, or Oct. 5?

At this point, I’m tentatively ready to say that Game 5 did, in fact, occur on Oct. 5 at Rickwood Field. However, the fact is that two games were indeed played by the Black Barons and Grays in New Orleans — the official Game 4, a 14-1 shellacking of the Barons by Homestead, plus a contest on Oct. 4, an 8-2 Grays triumph at Pelican Stadium.

I have no doubt that the Oct. 4 game did take place — both the daily white papers and the weekly African-American paper in New Orleans — reported the result, while the dailies also previewed the affair in their coverage of Game 4.

And for some unclear reasons, the Big Easy media were informed that the Oct. 4 clash was, in fact, the official, clinching Game 5, while newspapers elsewhere around the nation agreed that Game 5 took place in Birmingham Oct. 5. Almost none of those publications outside of New Orleans even mentioned the Oct. 4, 8-2, win by the Grays.

Buck Leonard

The New Orleans papers surely didn’t just completely fabricate a game on Oct. 4. As the NOLA newspapers went to press on Oct. 3, they were clearly under the impression that the official Game 5 of the NLWS was scheduled for the next day — not later on in Birmingham.

But why? Why did Crescent City reporters believe as such? Were they erroneously told, during or immediately after Game 4 had ended, by someone involved in the series that Game 5 would take place in New Orleans? And who would have given them that information, and why? Were the people feeding that info to the local newspapers themselves mistaken when they leaked the status of Game 5?

Or, perhaps, sometime on Oct. 4 — either before or quickly after the “mystery game” had concluded — those involved, decided (quite at the spur of the moment) to make that contest an exhibition between the clubs, not Game 5. As part of that decision, the powers that be declared that Game 5 would take place at Rickwood Oct. 5.

Given the need for Negro Leagues teams to generate as much revenue as possible in order to survive, let alone thrive, by the time 1948 rolled around and as the integration of organized baseball continued unabated, did the owners/promoters of the Grays and the Black Barons chose to make the Oct. 4 contest an exhibition, not an official NLWS game, in an effort to bring in an additional take at the gate? Perhaps they were encouraged enough by the turnout at Pelican Stadium on Oct. 3 that they brainstormed a second New Orleans game to milk that Big Easy success a little more by staging the match on Oct. 4.

These are questions to which I don’t immediately have answers, and all the folks I’ve talked to for this piece are stumped as well. This, though, is why we love history — the conundrums it presents and the challenges it places before is to find the answers.

“There are a lot of mysteries out there,” said Dr. Revel of the Negro Southern Museum. “To this day, that’s why all this research is done. That is why we need to continue to do the research. This is why we have to keep researching.”

I hope to do a follow up on this piece as more information and input comes in, but for now, we might just need to abide by Dr. Revel’s succinct thought.

“The truth is out there somewhere,” he said, “it’s just that we don’t know where it is.”


An excerpt from Birmingham World writer Emory Jackson’s Oct. 5, 1948, column:

“This series spotlights the plight of Negro baseball which is an orphan of white parks. With Negro players in the majors has slipped into the hands of one who is not officially connected with organized Negro baseball.

“Parks, players, promotions these are the three things stabbing Negro baseball players in the face. It is going to have to do something to overcome the lack of parts, to the competition made by Negro players in the majors, the scouting and recommending players to the white majors in which Abe Saperstein seems to realize more out of the sales than either players or club owner.

“The N.W.S. has been played in three different cities of which neither is the home of the Negro National League club. The Homestead Grays, by the way, apparently has [sic] two homes, Homestead, Pa., and Washington, D.C.

“Negro baseball may eventually have to fall back on the south Atlanta with its two Negro fields — Harper Field and Herndon Stadium, is without a first-class baseball team. The Gate City is probably the most abused baseball-worthy city in America. A well-run club placed in that city placed in one of the so-called sepia national leagues would be a boom to baseball. The future of Negro baseball lies in the ownership of club parks.

“SHAME ON BIRMINGHAM: The shame of Birmingham is that there is not a stadium, athletic field or enclosure where a Negro football or baseball team may rent at its convenience. …

“There has been no legal action by Negro citizens to bring the city-owned athletics field within equal use to Negro citizens.

Excerpt from John Klima’s book, “Willie’s Boys,” regarding the 1948 Negro League World Series:

“The Black Barons were an emotionally drained team by the time they arrived in New Orleans. They had beaten the [Kansas City] Monarchs in a grueling series and played the Grays close for three consecutive games. With the Black Barons’ major goals fulfilled, the Grays hammered Birmingham, 14-1, in New Orleans in Game 4. The demoralizing moment came when Jehosie Heard threw a pitch that was never seen again. ‘I didn’t see Luke Easter’s ball land,’ Piper said of the grand slam Easter hit in the fourth inning. Grays pitcher Wilmer Fields had to drive twenty-five straight hours to get to the game because he didn’t learn the location had been changed until he returned home to Virginia. He drove to New Orleans, carefully watching his back in Mississippi, where he stopped to nap on the side of the road. When he arrived, ‘I was in such bad shape I was shaking,’ he said.

“The teams drove back to Birmingham for Game 5. The Black Barons tied the score, 6-6, midway through the game, but, ‘not that there was any doubt it from the beginning,’ Dismukes insisted, the Grays pulled away for a 10-6 victory. Details were scant in papers around the country, as black newspapers dedicated their space to the major league World Series, where the Larry Doby- and Satchel Paige-led Cleveland Indians were playing the Boston Braves, a team that had quietly started encouraging its scout to turn in the names of promising young black players in the South. But when the final out was recorded in Birmingham, the Homestead Grays were the last Negro League World Series champions.

“The loss held mixed emotions for the Black Barons. ‘I remember when it was over,’ Sammy C. Williams said, ‘Jimmy Newberry said, “Josh Gibson is dead and we still can’t beat these guys.”’ Wiley Griggs called the Grays a team that ‘could play anyone in the majors and beat them.’ Yet the Black Barons took great pride in their accomplishments. They had defeated the Monarchs and started Willie Mays on his baseball career. ‘We didn’t feel too bad,’ Bill Greason said. ‘We had a great season. We had a great series against the Monarchs and played three real close games with the Grays. Everyone had a great year.’

“Leonard always remembered the 1948 Negro League World Series, when he saw the end of one era and the start of another. The Negro Leagues as he had known them were over. He was a bridge between Josh Gibson and Willie Mays. Never did a more famous player with the first name of Buck play in the Negro Leagues, but Buck Leonard felt privileged to have witnessed Buck Duck play center field for the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons. ‘I think Birmingham had their best team that year,’ he wrote.”


An excerpt from Louisiana Weekly sports editor Charles de Lay’s May 15, 1948, column about local baseball executive Allen Page:

“New Orleans Fans Fortunate

“Local baseball and boxing fans are fortunate in having two of America’s outstanding sports promoters in their midst. These two astute devotees of top-notch sports are Allen Page, the South’s premier impresario of diamond excellence, and Louis Messina, Dixie’s own version of the immortal [boxing promoter] Tex Rickard. Page’s interest in Messina’s forte is manifest in his attempts to bring Mobile’s (Ala.) Eddie Coleman to A-1 performance through the tutelage of one of New Orleans’ most famous sons — Larry Amadee, the nation’s foremost trainer, as exemplified by his position in Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis’s camp.

“A veteran of the national sport, Allen Page’s executive ability is in demand in baseball administrative circles. His desire to bring the best in baseball to the Crescent City has found him taking many financial TKO’s, nevertheless his optimistic outlook presumes that support (attendance) deserving the superlative attractions he brings to Pelican Stadium annually will be forthcoming ‘around the corner.’ The obligation of bringing financial success to Page rests solely in the fans who claim that they want the best and only the best.

“Fans throughout the nation, and certainly here, claim that they want more opportunities for Negroes in organized baseball’s elite — the major leagues. Support of Page’s effort here in New Orleans will make possible the initial opportunity for success for the many Jackie Robinsons and Larry Dobys who cavort on America’s collegiate and sandlot diamonds.

“‘Under the new set-up in Southern Association parks, admission prices for gentlemen were raised to $1,’ Mr. Page told this corner on Monday. ‘Since all teams or clubs that play in the Southern Association parks must be in line with their regulations, it was necessary to raise admission prices for gentlemen to games which I have promoted and will promote here,’ Mr. Page continued.

“‘And, too, since all the teams in the Negro Southern League are playing in Southern Association parks, they must be in line with the parks also. Due to my handling of all Negro American and National League, as well as Southern League, teams, all of which are organized clubs, I had to comply with the league rules,’ Mr. Page stated.

“‘This occurred just like the price of coca-cola was raised from five cents to a dime here. I had to do likewise. As you know, cokes were sold all over the country for ten cents in baseball parks but here in New Orleans it was sold for five cents. Now the local concessions are in line with all other parks,’ said Mr. Page.

“‘I do appreciate the support that loyal fans have given me during past baseball seasons. And with their cooperation in the future, I am hoping that we can put the Negro Southern League on a sound footing,’ genial promoter Page concluded.”

Note: Lengthy digression about Coke aside, Page’s comments here about the hike in the price of admission at Southern Association ballparks (including Pelican Stadium) reflect the absolute dependence on organized baseball that many Negro League teams faced, especially in terms of finding a play to play black ball games. This situation was also highlighted by Emory Jackson’s commentary above.

Essentially, most Negro teams didn’t own their own stadium — there were a few exceptions, such as Greenlee Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Crawfords — which forced them to rent out the stadiums that housed a city’s major league or minor league club. And, as shown with the erratic game scheduling for the 1948 Negro World Series, black teams played at the whim of white teams’s schedules.

Thus, Negro teams often didn’t control their own fate on many levels, a level of uncertainty and disappointment that was felt by the black executives, managers, players and fans and that proved quite disheartening at times.

However, there’s a twist of irony here — just as black teams started out as dependents to white franchises, after 1946, those same white teams in organized baseball had to increasingly depend on the black players that were flooding organized baseball post-Jackie. If an MLB or minor league team wanted to find success, they simply had to integrate or be left in the dust by already integrated clubs and leagues.

And it wasn’t just in the standings that recalcitrant, racist white franchises were rightly punished for their bigotry — fans of all colors, who always (quite naturally) want to see the best baseball they could find, now only wanted to see integrated teams that melded the best white and black (and later Latino) talent on now-powerful rosters.

As such, white teams and leagues that refused to accept the march of progress and equality, saw their attendances plummet, crippling their financial bottom line and eventually, well, forcing them out of business.

Nowhere was that displayed than the Southern Association, which stubbornly refused to integrate for its entire existence. The result? The Southern Association — and all its few remaining teams — folded completely after the 1961. Their death was inevitable.

Thus, the same white league and teams that formerly held the fates of black baseball in the palm of their hands completely collapsed because of integration. It was now the white community that was dependent on black baseball, and the Southern Association was the poster child for the change.

A look at the desegregation of the PCL

Amy Essington’s new book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Negro League bobbleheads, and how you can help

Negro Leagues Kickstarter Main Pic v3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effa Manley Bobblehead

The design for the Effa Manley bobblehead

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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