You want some Malloy? I got some Malloy!

Margie Peterson (far left) and Peggy Peterson (far right) talk with David Bowman and Belinda Manning (daughter of Newark pitcher Max Manning) talk about Robert Peterson‘s landmark book, “Only the Ball Was White,” after listening to a recording of Robert’s stirring address at the very first Malloy Conference 20 years ago. Here is a passionate essay by Larry Lester describing the influence of the book on Larry and his work.

Derrick Jones (left) presents a surprised Larry Lester with a beautiful, hand sewn, Negro Leagues-themed quilt for Larry’s years of dedication and efforts.

Other than taking forever to put together this post, I’m still riding high on the wave of coolness — wave of coolness? — that was SABR’s 20th annual Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference, held this year in Harrisburg from July 27-29.

In my previous post, I kind of let loose with some emotional thoughts about how important the Malloy conference — and similar efforts to promote, preserve and teach folks about the legacy of the Negro Leagues, as well as our very American history in general — to our both those who attended and to the mission of baseball research.

So I’ll try to keep this one light-ish in tone and heavy on picture. In addition to some I took, there’s a whole lot snapped by other attendees, including Missy Booker, Ted Knorr, Leslie Heaphy, Sherman Jenkins and Rodney Page. I lost track of who exactly took which one, so I hope it’s OK if I just give a general photog credit here. Also diligently snapping photos the entire weekend was official conference photographer Louis C. McKinney, who owns a photography business in Marietta, Pa.

If I included photos by anyone else I neglected to list, let me know. Many thanks to all!

And, of course, thanks to the dedicated folks who planned, plotted and prepared this year’s edition – you know who you are!

Just a quick note … the Harrisburg Senators game on July 28, at which the former players were honored, was rained out, which was quite the bummer. I love minor league baseball — you do not even know — so this was a disappointment. As the Louisiana Weekly sportswriters of yesteryear might say, ol’ Jupe Pluvius had his way that night.

One more comment … A bunch of media outlets either previewed or covered this year’s conference, including the New York Amsterdam News, PennLive.com, The Burg community newspaper, WN.com and Gameday Gold (by Thomas Tuttle).

Oh, also … thanks to the ever-gracious and ebullient Phil Ross for the breakfast bagel and cream cheese! Also, many humble thanks to all the new friends I made at the conference, as well as the folks whom I had known or communicated with over the years that I finally had a chance to meet this year. There were many of you, a fact of which I’m extremely grateful.

OK, let the festivities begin!

My good buddy Phil Ross and me. He’s obviously the handsome one here.

Floyd Stokes (left) and Ted Knorr (Harrisburg kid and my annual Malloy roomie, along with Lou Hunsinger Jr.) present their children’s Negro Leagues activity book at the conference’s education forum.

The highlight of the conference for me was undoubtedly the attendance of my good friend Rodney Page, son of legendary team owner/manager/league executive/sports promoter/hotelier Allen Page, who served as a chairman of sorts of the New Orleans Negro Leagues scene for 30 years.

I hope to write more about Rodney and my friendship with him soon, but for now, I’m extremely glad that I was able to convince him to attend the Malloy this year — he lives in Austin, Texas — and I know he had a blast. So thanks to Rodney for attending, and to everyone else who made him feel so welcome at our “family reunion.” He learned a lot, shared a lot and probably even cried a big over the three days.

Rodney and I at the meet-and-greet.

Rodney with Belinda Manning, David Bowman and Jim Myers at the banquet.

Rodney providing moving comments at the meet-and-greet, with Larry looking on.

Rodney (second from right) with former Negro Leaguers Sam Allen, Jim Robinson and Ken Free, along with other descendants of Negro League figures. The members of the group were recognized, thanked and given certificates for their gracious attendance.

Rodney and I with KC Monarch Sam Allen.

One of the highlights of the conference was the Rap Dixon tour, led by local experts/researchers Ted Knorr and Calobe Jackson. It was a muggy day, and I ended up absolutely soaked with sweat, but it was worth it. Rap was a stupendous outfielder for the Harrisburg Giants, among other clubs.

Dozens of us piled onto a specially rented school bus for the trek, which included key stops on Adams Street/Hygienic Hill in the borough of Steelton, where Rap Dixon and many other black residents lived, went to school and worshiped; and historic Midland Cemetery to pay respects at Rap’s grave, which a couple years ago received a stunning tombstone after going unmarked for decades.

Here is a TV report about our tour.

Ted speaking in front of Rap Dixon’s home while a TV fellow films him and Calobe looks on.

Calobe giving the tour bus rich details about Rap.

Steelton Mayor Maria Romano Marcinko reads the borough’s proclamation honoring Rap and declaring Rap Dixon Day. Here is a borough press release on the event.

SABR CEO Marc Appleman with the Rap proclamation. Marc is a regular Malloy attendee.

Community activist Barbara Barksdale filling the tour crowd in about the Hygienic School, the school Rap attended as a youth as Mayor Marcinko listens in. In the background, local kids play to-on-two on the court that sits where the school used to stand.

Borough parking staffers and Steelton police rolled out the red carpet for us. We had a police escort!

The following three photos show Reich Field in Steelton, which honors Rap.

The presentations, as usual, were splendid and quite educational. In addition to the ones mentioned in the captions to the photos below, we had:

  • Rich Puerzer’s relating of the importance and legacy of Colonel William Strothers in Harrisburg blackball;
  • Jeremy Beer‘s revealing look at the man and off-the-field personality — the true personality, not the one glorified by writers of back then and today — of Oscar Charleston;
  • An alternative history of Negro League baseball, in which presenters Ed Edmonds and Michael Cozzillo tantalizingly speculated on what would’ve happened if Major League Baseball had expanded by accepting entire black teams;
  • Gary Sarnoff’s look at the role Bill “Chick” Starr — as executive of the then-PCL members Padres — played in the integration of baseball. In 1948 Starr signed catcher John Ritchey as the first black player in the PCL.
  • Mary E. Corey’s and Mark Harnischfeger’s fascinating presentation called, “Byways, Segues, Digressions and Detours,” which, according to their proposal, “focuses on a variety of off-the-beaten-path connections to our research into the social and economic impact of the Negro Leagues”;
  • Ken Mars’ summary of his in-depth baseball archaeology of pre-1890’s black baseball, including the city’s participation of the 1887 National Colored League. Here’s a link to some of his work;
  • One of my faves from the weekend — Paul Spyhalski‘s examination of the role black baseball played in early-20th-century Iowa resort tourism and how blackball helped make the tourism industry boom in the Hawkeye State.
  • Todd Peterson’s exhaustive statistical analysis of Negro Leagues’ top-level players to prove, numbers-wise — that blackball stars were indeed of Major League-level;
  • Bill Johnson’s heartfelt, personal look into the life and career of the great Art Pennington, who …
  • A similarly passionate examination of outfielder Jim Zapp by Bill Nowlin, Rick Busch and James Zapp Jr., who told the crowd how much Zapp Sr. inspired them personally;
  • A discussion by Emily Rutter, who made possibly the most intellectual and philosophically challenging presentation — the emotional and historical implications and impacts of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning play, “Fences,” as well as the Oscar-nominated movie directed by and starring Denzel Washington (who got robbed of his second Best Actor Oscar).

Melissa Booker (here with Derrick Jones) gave a nifty presentation on influential but overlooked Pittsburgh Courier writer William Nunn Sr.

Jeff Williams discussed the political philosophies and connections and how those factors influenced him and his dream of integrated baseball.

John Graf presented a fascinating hypothesis — what if a Satchel-led group of dozens of black ball players competed in a “fantasy league” for a season?

On top of the research presentations, the conference included three power special panels — a Q&A featuring Negro Leagues veterans Jim RobinsonKen Free Sr. and Sam Allen, moderated by Carmen Finestra and also featuring historians Calobe Jackson and Andy Linker; the Ted Knorr-hosted discussion on the stellar short film by emerging filmmaker Scott Orris, “There Were Giants,” about the 1954 Harrisburg Giants; and a culminating playing of Robert Peterson’s moving and immortal address at the very first Malloy conference (Peterson, of course, is the author of the seminal, “Only the Ball Was White”).

One more items: At Thursday’s meet-and-great, author Michael G. Long of Elizabethtown College narrated his efforts toward his new book, “Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography,” about Jackie’s religious convictions and how he applied them during his career.

I’ll close out this photo-ganza with a handful of other cool pics, a lot of them from Saturday night’s dinner and award ceremony that featured a massive silent auction, a delectable barbecue buffet and music by the Mark Hunsberger Quartet …

Sherman Jenkins (with his stellar new biography of Ted Strong) and John Wakelin. John and I, tangentially, had a neat discussion earlier in the conference about a 1940’s-era photo John uncovered from Kosciusko, Miss., and John’s efforts to track down the photo’s baseball-related details.

Three generations of Charles Crutchfields (Junior, III and IV) after Charles III received the prestigious Fay Vincent MVP Award. The Crutchfields are relatives of the great outfielder Jimmie Crutchfield.

Donald Conway, Ruby Berryman and Phil Ross.

Jay Hurd, Susan Rayl, John Graf and Sherman Jenkins. Rayl’s in-the-works PhD dissertation is on the Harlem Rens, the legendary “black five” basketball team.

The last two are just really cool shots of the Malloy family.

Finally, here’s a couple self-indulgences — a beautiful signed print of Double Duty Radcliffe that I couldn’t afford but splurged on nonetheless during the silent auction at the banquet, and my goofy mug.

Really quick … some the other award winners:

  • Significa contest titlist — Rich Puerzer (his second title). Runners up were Todd Peterson and John Graf;
  • First registrants — Dan D’Addona, Jay Hurd and Roy Langhangs
  • Farthest Distance traveled — Missy Booker from Portland, Ore.;
  • Scholarship winners Jakez Smith, Sophia Dossin, Niger Reaves and Isabella Baynard;
  • Robert Peterson Recognition Award — Duke Goldman and Makayla & Jeff Klein;
  • John Coates Next Generation Award — Sherman Jenkins and Courtney Michelle Smith;
  • Tweed Webb Lifetime Achievement Award — Jim Overmyer, Calobe Jackson and Bryan Steverson;
  • Fay Vincent MVP Award — Charles Crutchfield III.

If anyone knows/remembers the other award winners, please let me know. I was too stuff with barbecue to retain memories!

Post-script: 2018. Where are we goin’ next year? The scuttlebutt has several locales tossing their hat into the ring, including St. Paul, Daytona Beach, Birmingham, D.C. … We’ll see who nabs the honors. Personally, I’d like Birmingham, cuz it’s in driving distance for me.

But, my hometown of Rochester, N.Y. — home of the Luke Easter SABR chapter — has expressed interest! Obviously, that would be my ideal choice, because my hometown is, well, awesome. The Red Wings (the Twin’s Triple-A team) would doubtlessly be glad to help out, or at least host us for a game. There’s also the short-season, Single-A Batavia Muckdogs (they’re in the Marlins system) maybe an hour away, and I might be willing to take a contingent out there for a game if possible.

OK, post-post-script: I wanted to point out links to some other neat posts put up on the Malloy Facebook page over the last few weeks. Check ’em out if you can! …

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Unity in passion, strength in numbers

It’s been more than two weeks since the conclusion of the 2017 Jerry Malloy conference in Harrisburg, and I’m just now putting fingers to keys in reflection. It’s taken me so long, I think, because there’s been so many other things flitting through and swirling around in my head.

This year’s conference was a fantastic, rewarding experience — just what I needed as I tried to rebound from my crash-and-burn experience at last year’s version. It was incredible to see so many friends and fellow black baseball historians again this year. As the one and only Larry Lester says, “It’s nice to see family again.”

Plus, my roomie Ted Knorr put together and pulled off a remarkable, educational and inspiring event in his hometown. The poor guy ran himself ragged for four days — and that’s not counting the year of lead-up prep work he did before July 27 rolled around — but he hung in there and, with help from a whole bunch of compatriots and supporters, it was a smashing three-day experience. So, many congrats and huge thanks to Mr. Knorr and even else involved.

Since I returned to NOLA, however, I’ve been viewing this year’s experience in Harrisburg as a reprieve of sorts from what else has been going on in my life. In addition to the usual financial challenges — the perpetual woes of a freelance journalist and researcher are always floating over my head — the atmosphere and state of our nation as a whole has weighed upon me heavily, much as it has many others. Watching the incremental dissolution and crumbling of rational, respectful discourse, then our cherished electoral process, then our journalism, then our international relations, and finally our very spirit of generosity and understanding … it’s just been very hard to witness and process the decay of the soul of our nation without feeling a draining of my own optimism and faith in the future of our society.

And then what happened in Charlottesville Saturday … well, I can’t really speak for anyone else, but the violence and terrorism inflicted upon peaceful protestors by fearful, hate-filled bigots has affected me very deeply. Combined with the sudden, frightening threat of actual nuclear war with a poverty-stricken, despotic dictatorship halfway around the world, the Virginia tragedy has, in some ways, driven me into my own head, unable to understand or even grasp what’s happening around me, and around us as a country. It all seems like a nightmare, a horrific dreamscape from which I just want to withdraw and hide.

Nothing seems real, and nothing seems important, other than physical and psychological survival. Thus, over the last few days, it’s been very difficult to see how researching and writing about baseball history matters much right now.

The fact that Saturday’s eruption of evil was rooted in and fed by ethnic, cultural and racial hatred makes me ponder whether the dedication and work of me, you and others passionate about the Negro Leagues has really, truly made a difference. For years — and decades, for many of us — we’ve striven to learn about our nation’s cultural past, to understand our country’s mistakes in order to prevent them from happening again.

As black baseball historians and enthusiasts, we’ve tried to show people, through the lens of the American pastime, that all people are capable of great, courageous, honorable things, that wondrous achievements can be forged in the crucible of fear and hate, and that, ultimate, love, understanding and bravery can eventually triumph over darkness.

Because of this dedication — and the overwhelmingly positive response from the public, SABR and the average baseball — we, as a family of researchers, writers and fans, have come to believe personally in the notion that every one of us can always strive for knowledge, for learning, for personal betterment and the betterment of our society. We believe that one man or one woman — a Jackie Robinson, an Effa Manley, a Rube Foster — can make a difference, can change minds and win over hearts. We learn about such legendary figures, and they inspire us as individuals to make ourselves and our country better.

And then something like Charlottesville happens. Over the last excruciating few days, that tragedy — especially when laid upon all the other hate and fear that has piled up on our national psyche since a fool with fake hair and false notions of reality rode down an escalator to announce he wanted to be our “leader” — has made me wonder, “Jackie’s stoic pride, his potent bat, his fleet feet, his Herculean endurance of hate and bigotry, his steely character … was it all ultimately for naught? This is what he — and Rube and Sol and Josh and Effa and Oscar and Bud and so many others — fought for? For it all to come to this? To a nation torn apart at its very ideological and spiritual source?

Why bother trying to educate people, whether it be about baseball history or any other subject, if a stubborn, fearful, hardened minority will always do whatever they can to destroy any learning the rest of us try to offer and experience?

Why bother telling folks about how, for decades, black men and women who were shunned and rejected by white society and its Organized Baseball and forced to form their own units, their own teams, their own hardball families and scramble and scratch and claw to establish their own leagues, their own tours, their own identity? Why relate to folks about how African-American teams had to tirelessly criss cross the country, playing one or even two games every single day just to put food on the table and play the sport they love because white society refused their talents and passion?

Why relate tales of having to go around to the back of restaurants to accept scraps of food, about having to eat crackers and sardines on a cramped, smelly bus at 2 in the morning, day after day, night after night? Why tell people about these men and women who were sometimes literally just one step ahead of a hateful mob in white sheets and carrying torches, just because those men and women loved baseball — loved the American pastime — so much that they’d risk such challenges and terrors?

Why even bother telling people about those terrifying scenes — and the resulting triumph over them — that took place so long ago, when similar scenes are playing out at this very moment? Why try to show people the historical error of our ways when those errors are, in reality, not even history, but are now? This is how far we have come? This?

Why even bother?

Why even bother to pursue your passion, if that pursuit occurs in a societal vacuum of ignorance? Why bother to spread your enthusiasm and love of learning to others when so many won’t even listen?

Why even bother when horrific things like this keep happening? Why even bother to teach people who don’t want to learn? Why preach understanding when so many persist in hating?

Why care about history when that very history keeps leading to violence and fear, when that history continues to be irrelevant for so many? Why teach of the past when the present, the here and now, is so bewildering, dark and dispiriting?

Why?

Because of the Malloy. Because our annual conference reminds us, even briefly and in the darkest times, that togetherness and respect united behind a shared passion and faith can still make a difference. Because the love found in a family can truly be a beacon in the night, a lighthouse in a swirling, raging storm, a guide to better things.

Because in just three days, the 100 or so of us who gathered in Harrisburg showed what love and learning and respect can do. It can bring together people of different genders, different races, different sexual orientations, different backgrounds in the spirit of baseball — the true spirit of our nation.

Because the Malloy conference renews that spark of inspiration within all of us. Those 72 hours together reminds us that we are not alone, we are never alone in our pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding.

And as long as we can hold on to that — and I know we all will — we collectively can find the strength and courage and passion to push forward with our mission. We can continue to fight for what we believe, for what we know, deep down, is true and just. We can, both individually and as a team, tap into and channel the spirit of No. 42 and show the world that, dammit, our souls will not be drained, our devotion to our fellow man and woman will never be dimmed, our lives will never lose focus or purpose.

We will soldier forward. We will not give up. And we will never, ever stop spreading the message of love and respect.

 

OK, with that out of my system, I’ll spend the next few days putting together a post about the Malloy that’s decidedly less serious and more fun. I’ll again put out a call for any pictures or other submissions folks would like to send me. I’d be grateful for whatever you want to share! Just email me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com. Thanks!

Malloy Conference: New Orleans, Rap Dixon and Gentleman

Rodney Page with Stella Wells. Thanks to Rodney for the photo.

Editor’s note: I wrote most of this post a couple days ago, but I’m just now posting it tonight (Wednesday evening) from the Harrisburg Hilton. Yep, I made it in one piece, and the friendly faces are trickling in. The festivities start tomorrow.

Giddiness is a funny state of being, a blend of joy, anticipation and mania that both excites and exhausts. When it strikes, barely contained happiness verges on irrational, reckless optimism. Any anxieties about the possibility of ultimate disappointment is shoved out of the mind and replaced by a somewhat forced belief that everything is going to be freaking awesome. It’s a frame of mind perhaps best vocalized by the late, much missed Flounder: “Oh boy, is this great?!?!”

Alas, I find myself unequivocally giddy right now. In about 24 hours, I board a plane en route to Baltimore, where I’ll then procure a rental car and motor to the Harrisburg Hilton for the 20th annual Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues conference.

It’ll be my sixth straight Malloy — following Cleveland (2012), Newark (2013), Detroit (2014), Pittsburgh (2015) and Kansas City (2016) — and every time I attend one, it’s like a homecoming. The Negro Leagues community is indeed a big family, and the Malloy conference is a joyous reunion.

Old friends exchange hugs, voluminous knowledge is exchanged, and passions are shared and celebrated. At the Malloy conference, one eternal truth becomes evident — fans are historians, and historians are fans. When you love the history of African American baseball, there’s really no distinction. Just the way it should be.

Unfortunately, for me, at times, attending the Malloy has been challenging for me. As someone who deals with bipolarism, mood disorders and anxiety issues, I become susceptible to periods of mania — such as giddiness — followed by crippling crashes into exhaustion and depression.

That’s happened a couple times with me at the Malloy conference. I’ve simply crashed and become unable to function and enjoy the proceedings like I wanted to. It’s a crushing, draining and embarrassing turn of events that triggers guilt for letting people down and depression for demolishing my plans, and the plans of others.

It happened last year at Kansas City, and it was not good.

As a result, I want this year’s conference in Harrisburg to be an amazing experience. I want to share the fellowship, savor the experiences and learn some pretty cool stuff.

Thus my current giddiness. And because, with me, giddiness often leads to crashing and burning, I’m also anxious about the conference. So, at this moment, I’m trying to mentally multi-task — tempering the negativity and anxiety while, at the same time, keeping a lid on the mania and, well, giddiness.

It’s a taut high wire to walk, but I know I can do it. We shall see.

Because there is indeed lots of cool stuff to look forward to this week …

First off, I convinced my very good friend Rodney Page to attend the conference this year. Rodney’s father was New Orleans promoter/owner/entrepreneur Allen Page, arguably the most important figure in black baseball history in these parts.

The gathering (including me and Rodney) to dedicate Wesley Barrow’s tombstone.

Allen was more than just a sports impresario and kingpin for three decades in the early to mid-20th-century Negro Leagues scene, but he became a player on the national stage as well — by creating and hosting the annual North-South All-Star Game, becoming president of the Negro Southern League, by buying and bringing the St. Louis Stars to the Crescent City (making them the only major league-level baseball team in Big Easy history).

Unfortunately, Allen Page is greatly overlooked, not just in New Orleans, but nationally as well. NOLA hasn’t really developed a reputation as a Negro Leagues hot spot, a disheartening situation that simply belies the rich, expansive blackball history here. For nearly a decade now, I’ve been working to change that.

Rodney has been a partner in that effort. He contacted me after I published this article in the Times-Picayune, and from there, we developed a close bond and friendship. I helped arrange an interview a few years ago with Rodney by a reporter at WWL in New Orleans, and Rodney gave much time and money toward the effort to place a headstone on the grave of NOLA manager extraordinaire Wesley Barrow.

Thus I’m thrilled that Rodney will be there in Harrisburg, especially because he’s agreed to share some of his memories of and reflections on his father and Allen’s legacy on New Orleans baseball. That will undoubtedly include tales of meeting the great Willie Wells as a child — El Diablo a close pal of Allen and a regular face at the Page Hotel on Dryades Street here — as well as his continuing friendship Willie’s daughter, Stella. (Both she and Rodney live in Austin, Texas.)

There’s even more NOLA Negro Leagues related stuff — this article I wrote for the Times-Picayune that came out today about the blackball in the Big Easy, including Allen Page.

And I know I’m piling side note on top of sided note at this point, but earlier this month I nominated Allen Page for induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. If Page were to get the call from Natchitoches (where the LSHOF is), it would be pretty much the first time Allen would have received any sort of formal honor — at least over the last half-century — in Louisiana. Like I said, Allen Page has been overlooked, and massively so, for far too long, and that has to change.

There’s another reason the impending conference will be a milestone. With this edition, the Malloy marks its 20th anniversary, and it also comes full circle — the very first gathering two decades ago was in Harrisburg as well!

This year’s landmark conference is being arranged, coordinated and hosted by another good friend of mine — and yearly Malloy roommate — Ted Knorr, who hails from the Pennsylvania state capital. Along with Larry Lester and other SABR stalwarts, it looks like Ted has put together a bang-up baseball brouhaha.

Ted was instrumental in getting the first Malloy off the ground 20 years ago, and he’s been a dedicated, knowledgeable member of the committee ever since (including running, and providing many of the questions for, the annual Significa contest on the final day of the conference). For his longtime, hefty contributions to the Malloy and to SABR, last year Ted received the prestigious Fay Vincent Most Valuable Player Award from the Negro Leagues committee at Kansas City. In a massive understatement, it was well earned.

Ted at Rap’s grave

Part of Ted’s extensive involvement in the Negro Leagues commitment is his signature mission — to teach, promote and honor the legacy of Herbert Allen Dixon, better known as Rap, one of the most accomplished and talented outfielders in Negro Leagues history. (Here and here is info about Dixon.) Rap was a key cog in the great Harrisburg Giants teams of the 1920s, and, like Ted, he called Harrisburg home.

On Thursday, Ted will lead a tour visiting some of the key locales in Rap’s life, such as his grave, which now has a beautiful headstone thanks to the efforts of Ted and a whole crew of fellow volunteers.

On top of the Malloy news, I’ve experienced a bunch of other happenstances over the last few months …

That right there is a copy of the contract Gentleman Dave Malarcher signed with the Chicago American Giants for the 1926 Negro National League season. And yep, that’s the one and only Rube Foster’s signature on it as well.

I had the opportunity to dig this treasure out — along with a whole bunch of other Malarcher nuggets — when I visited the archives of Dillard University to research a story on DU’s founding. Dave was a Dillard alum — actually, he was a graduate of New Orleans University, one of the two NOLA HBCUs that merged to form Dillard — and he donated many of his personal papers and photos to his alma mater later in life.

This was actually the second time I’d seen the Malarcher file — I dove into it several years ago for an article I whipped up for the Dillard alumni magazine about Gentleman Dave.

Pluuuuuuuus, earlier this summer I visited the mighty metropolis of Union, La., Dave’s hometown along the Mississippi River levee. While I was there, I tracked down and trekked back to his brand new tombstone that was erected after he was posthumously inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Here’s that pic:

I’ve since been mulling over working on a longer project about Malarcher, maybe even a book about the wily third baseman and manager. So we’ll see where that heads. …

Finally, many thanks and congratulations to Doug Schoppert, who gave a remarkable presentation about Louis Armstrong and Satchmo’s love for baseball last month at the SABR 47 conference in NYC. I was happy to help out Doug out, very humbly, with preparing for his presentation by offering my research about Louis’ own semi-pro baseball team in 1931 New Orleans, the Secret 9. A link to an audio recording of Doug’s presentation is here — just scroll down some to find the paragraph on him.

Alrighty, that’s enough damage to your retinas for now. I’ll try to blog a bit from Harrisburg when I can, but I make no promises. There’s just too much cool stuff on the agenda.

Catharsis in Frankfort, courtesy of Bud Fowler

The drive between Albany and my hometown of Webster, N.Y. (just east of Rochester along Lake Ontario), is interminable. It really is. I’ve made that tedious, seemingly unceasing trek down I-90 — otherwise known as the illustrious New York State Thruway — dozens of times.

I made numerous trips home from Holyoke, Mass., where I worked for two years at a weekly paper. Then, when I was living in Rochester again, I had to drive east from ROC on I-90, then head up the Northway, a.k.a. I-87, to visit a good friend in Plattsburgh.

Errgh! I hate driving the Thruway. Loathe it. Not only is it supremely boring, but the exorbitant tolls amount to state-sponsored highway robbery.

Thus what happened last month. I spent six days in early June in Millinocket, Maine, for my grandmother’s funeral. For several reasons, it was an exhilarating, emotional, sorrowful, celebratory and draining six days, and by the time I was ready to drive home in the spiffy minivan I bought from my grandmother’s trust — for a single buck — I was quite weary but excited to spend a few days visiting my mom in Rochester.

I split it up into two days — I used to be able to drive 14 hours in the dead of night to various destinations, but I ain’t no spring chicken nowadays — and the first one was miserable, largely because good chunks of Massachusetts just outright suck.

For the second leg, I drove from a hotel just west of Worcester — that’s pronounced “Wuss-ter,” you know — to my hometown of Webster, a benumbing stretch that included the aforementioned part between Albany and Syracuse.

And I wanted to break that expanse up somehow. Naturally, my personality being a pleasant blend of morbid and reverent, that meant stopping in Frankfort, N.Y., for a black baseball legend’s grave — that of none other than the progenitor himself, Bud Fowler.

First, another lengthy sidenote … There’s two basic New Yorks. There’s “downstate,” which is essentially New York City, Westchester County and Long Island, in my view. Then there’s everything else — and that’s a lot more than many people realize — that’s known as upstate. Pretty much everything to the north and west of the Big Apple is considered “upstate,” although there are different distinct regions, such as western New York (Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Jamestown; central New York (Syracuse, Utica, the Finger Lakes, although the lakes could also be considered western NY); the Southern Tier along the Pennsylvania state line (Binghamton, Elmira, Ithaca), the capital region and Tri-Cities (Albany, Rome and Schenectady), the North Country (the entire Adirondacks and stuff along the St. Lawrence River) and the Hudson Valley (between Albany and Westchester County).

And these two parts of the Empire State … They’re simply two different worlds. Downstate is, of course, very urbanized and wealthy suburbanized, while much of upstate is pastoral, farming country, with lots of cool natural and recreational outdoorsy-type opportunities.

There’s also an overarching perception among upstaters that downstate — namely, New York City — perpetually screws upstate be draining all of the government’s resources and causing the absurdly high property tax rates across the state. In essence, there’s a bitterness among upstaters toward NYC based on the idea that upstate essentially subsidizes all the “elites” in New York City. (Many conservative white upstaters, too — let’s face it — loathe downstate, especially NYC, because of their perception that the various minorities “in that hellhole” are freeloading mooches who siphon off the hard-earned money of diligent, honest — read: white — upstate folk.)

What’s my biggest New York demography-based pet peeve, though? Frankly, I often resent the fact that when I’m in other parts of the country — and this is more my frustration with the the hordes of non-New Yorkers out there in the big wide world — and people ask me where we’re I’m from, I can’t simply say “New York,” because many of outsiders automatically assume I mean New York City. I don’t, dude. And that’s really, really irritating, you know.

As a result, whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I never say just, “New York.” I say “Rochester” or “upstate New York,” because 1) I’m very proud of my hometown, and 2) I don’t want people to think I’m a typical New York City dude.

(You can place whatever characteristics and demographics you want on what “New York City” people are, because, as I said, there’s bitterness and distrust, including from the rest of the country as well. Oh, also, an anecdote: Sept. 11 happened early in my first semester of grad school at Indiana, and that’s when I perhaps became most keenly aware of the rest of the country to conflate “New York” as just the city. One evening I was getting a tasty beverage at a mini-mart, when a Bloomington townie noticed my New York license plate and, out of an earnest, heartfelt effort at national unity, said, “You’re from New York? Oh man, I’m sorry about what happened. Well, we stand with you, man. We love New York.” I was very touching, and I couldn’t be angry at the guy because he was obviously sincere, but Rochester is about five or six hours away from Ground Zero. However, and at the risk of sounding like an ungrateful snot, pre 9/11 many people from the rest of the country sneered at New York as a bunch of liberal elites and welfare queens who didn’t care about or respect “real Americans,” as Sarah Palin would so perceptively note. Then 9/11 happens, oh, and everyone’s lovey-dovey with the Big Apple. Yeah, and that goodwill didn’t last very long — within a couple years after 9/11, it seemed like everyone was back to the New York-bashing. The hypocrisy burned my bottom. Or, as Peter Griffin says, “You know what really grinds my gears?”)

But holy cow, I digress …

Thus, in my caffeine-addled mind, Bud Fowler is undoubtedly an upstater like me, and I like to think that Bud was just as proud of his original stomping grounds as I am mine.

Born John W. Jackson in Fort Plain, N.Y., in 1858, and raised in Cooperstown, Fowler was, I believe, an upstate New York kid at heart. It’s why he always seemed to return to the Empire State time and again. No matter how far he ventured, no matter how many teams in no matter how many states, Bud always came home. As sort of an appendix, I included a few examples of newspaper and other reports, both contemporary and modern, of Fowler’s baseball activity in upstate New York post-1900 at the end of this article.

Arguably his most well known — and infamous — venture in New York came in late 1886, when he signed with Binghamton of the International League, one of the country’s top minor-league loops.His already sterling record as a player and teammate, gained from nearly a decade of sweat and dirt on diamonds across the Northeast and Midwest, didn’t matter — during the 1887 season, his white teammates pitched a bigoted hissy fit and demanded Fowler get the boot.

So gone he was. And very swiftly, and semblance of integration in Organized Baseball was gone as well — by 1890 or so, the racial curtain had fallen on the national pastime, and people of color were shut out of the game’s mainstream, a state of affairs that would painfully drag on for well more than a half-century.

Interesting, 21-years-too-late post-script: In January 1908, the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin published a gushingly laudatory commentary by a dude dubbed Forty-Niner, who credited Bud with being a brilliant advertising impresario, making particular note of his Page Fence Giants venture. It’s probably an accurate assessment — in addition to be a multitalented athlete and a vigorously ambitious entrepreneur, Fowler was an incredibly savvy promoter and skilled self-marketer, a fact evidenced by his ability to solicit media coverage for his various ventures across the country.

The newspaper commentary, however, dives neck deep into duplicitous historical revisionism by claiming that Binghamton was proud of Bud’s association with the city, an assertion that, to say the least, completely glosses over the way the same city used bigotry to run him out of town 21 years earlier. Forty-Niner, whoever he (or she) was, even has the chutzpah to ludicrously claim, “The fact that ‘Bud’ is from Binghamton is not allowed to be overlooked. Hence it is that, in his modest way, Mr. Fowler has been, through his wide travels, a very effective advertiser of his home town.”

Right.

The article adds:

“Be it known that Bud is, or rather was, a baseball player of parts. During an active career of 25 years on the diamond he played in about every city in the country where baseball is admired, and played with or against a good share of the baseball phenomenons of the day, many of whom still loom large in the baseball sky. ‘Bud’ is a ‘man and brother’ whose skin is black but whose heart is white, and whose manners and conversation testify to a good life. …”

So for 1908, I guess that’s more or less a compliment, if a bit patronizingly, although it strongly insinuates that having a “heart that is black” (as in African-American, not evil) isn’t a good thing.

So, after leaving Binghamton, Bud Fowler became a baseball nomad, venturing hither and yon and back again in search of a way, any way, that he could play the game he cherished. He sporadically trying to establish black leagues in various states (none of them got off the ground), and hitching with white teams outside of Organized Baseball when and where he could.

Probably the apex of that lifestyle came in 1895, when Fowler became a founding member and manager of the Page Fence Giants in Adrian, Mich. The Giants, for a few fabulous years, became one of the best 19th-century black baseball clubs, a star-studded superpower that barnstormed across the Midwest and Northeast, taking on all comers.

However, Bud jumped off the Page Fence train in 1896, beginning what was described researcher/author Peter Morris as Fowler’s “lost years.” In an exhaustive study published in the fall 2009 edition of the journal, “Black Ball,” Morris noted that, even well into the 21st century, much of Bud’s final 18 years of life had been clouded in mystery. For his article, Morris delved into newspaper and magazine archives, Census records and testimonies from Fowler’s contemporaries to assemble many of the pieces of Bud’s post-1895 puzzle. Wrote Morris:

“While many questions remain, the overall picture of those years has come into much clearer focus, Bud Fowler remained devoted to baseball and tried to remain involved in the game through promoting a wide variety of imaginative ventures. In the years after 1895, when daunting obstacles of racism and insufficient capital thwarted many of his attempts to promote baseball clubs and barnstorming tours, he turned increasingly to the idealistic notion of the far west as a land of equality of opportunity. Despite the treatment he received, Bud Fowler never lost his passion for baseball and never gave up hope that the day would come when ballplayers would be judged on their merits rather than the color of their skin.”

We’ll jump ahead to the last few years of Fowler’s life, when he returned to upstate New York — Frankfort, to be precise — to live with his sister, Harriet Odams (several other spellings, such as Odum, of her last name exist), who had married a man named John Odum, a tool grinder (not sure what that is, but it sounds like a job in which one’s extremities might always be in jeopardy of being separated from the rest of him)  in roughly 1901. By 1910, John and Harriet — who, at 50 years of age in that year’s Census, was 14 years older than her husband — settled in Frankfort, N.Y., in Herkimer County, on the Tow Path, or Tow Path Road. (Tow paths were pathways running along the Erie Canal that allowed mules to pull, or tow, ships and boats down the Erie with rope from the shore.)

The 1910 Census report with Harriett and John Odum/Odams in Frankfort. Bud isn’t listed on it.

And that’s where Bud headed after he realized that, at long last, he’d come to the end of his baseball career as he headed north of 50 years old. He wasn’t in the best of shape, either — a debilitating malady racked his body by the end of the 19-oughts. It was first believed, thanks to a sensationalistic article in Sporting Life magazine in 1908, to be consumption, or, as it’s known today, tuberculosis. That report proved erroneous, and in 1909, Sporting Life reported that the cause of Fowler’s affliction the puncturing of a kidney by a broken rib earlier in his life.

(The source of the injury appears to be in question; Sporting Life asserted Bud received the pulverizing blow during his career with a particularly nasty collision when stealing second, but Morris and others speculate the critical blow when he was brutally beaten and robbed by a gang of tramps on a freight train in 1898.)

Bud’s condition deteriorated, and he died at his sister’s house in Frankfort on Feb. 26, 1913, officially from pernicious anemia, a rare blood disorder that’s apparently rare in the black population.

Soon after Fowler’s death, scattered obituaries — many of them a single paragraph — appeared in newspapers in the region. The Amsterdam Evening Record and Daily Democrat, for example, noted that for a year or so Bud operated a barbershop in that town “in the Flatiron building at the corner of Market and Shuler streets … and was well known here.”

The Gloversville Morning Herald, meanwhile, under the headline, “Was Well Known in This Vicinity,” related some surprisingly detailed local anecdotes:

“Jackson was well known in this city, having spent some time in this vicinity two years ago. He camped at Vandenberg’s pond at that time and had a number of boats which he rented to fishermen. During the cold weather he came to this city where he worked at the barbershop of Adelbert Dana … He left here for New York, where he was taken ill and later left the metropolis for Frankfort, where he died.”

Up in Watertown, along the east shore of Lake Ontario, one paper (I can’t figure out which one right now) erroneously dubbed Fowler “the last negro to play on a major league club before the edict against members of that race taking part in organized baseball went into effect” (Bud never played in the majors, a snag that’s probably kept him out of the Hall). The article went on to call him a former member of “the Boston team,” adding that Fowler “was playing with the then world’s famous White Sox” before organized baseball gave him the heave ho. The article doesn’t detail what it meant by those team references.

Bud was buried in an unmarked grave details in Oak View Cemetery in the village of Frankfort, just up a small hill from the village’s downtown.

Fortunately, 70-plus years later, resolute SABR members raised enough funds to erect a modest but elegant tombstone on Fowler’s grave. The dedication seems to have earned modest coverage from the local and national media. Here’s an excerpt from a July 23, 1987, United Press International wire story written by Elizabeth Shogren:

“On Saturday, the day before the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown inducts Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter, Billy Williams and former Negro League star Ray Dandridge, the game will remember Fowler in a most basic way.

“A simple tombstone will be erected on Fowler’s grave in a pauper’s field in Oak View Cemetery, just a few miles from where Alexander Cartwright invented the game.

“‘If it hadn’t been for fellows like him, breaking the color barrier would have been delayed a long, long time,’ said Monte Irvin, a star of the Negro Leagues and the New York Giants who is enshrined in Cooperstown.

“‘It was quite a fight for blacks to play. Fowler had such vigor and desire to participate, he didn’t mind taking the abuse,’ said baseball historian Bob Davids. ‘But he is buried in an unmarked grave. He should get some recognition.’”

With that, Davids touched on a key, recurring theme — and perhaps touched a nerve within modern Negro Leagues circles — about the way Fowler has been remembered (or hasn’t been) in his native region in upstate New York.

It’s now three decades after that, and, sadly, Frankfort itself has done little to recognize, remember and honor Bud Fowler and his baseball legacy. When I visited Bud’s grave during my trek across New York State, I stopped to ask for directions at a small mini-mart/gas station, and no one I spoke with there had ever heard of Fowler.

Thus, I reached out to a couple village of Frankfort officials, including Mayor Rick Adams, who answered me with an enthusiastic but disheartening e-mail, one that confirmed my suspicions about the status on the ground there. Adams wrote:

“I am aware of him but truly don’t know much about him other than the fact that he is possibly the first African American Major League Baseball [Bud never played in the majors, a thorny fact that’s largely responsible for his failure to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown] player, and my understanding is he passed away in Frankfort after an illness. I’ve heard he is buried here but never confirmed that for myself.

“We do have a very old cemetery within the village of Frankfort so it’s possible he is there. The town of Frankfort is very large in square miles so if he was in the town I really don’t know if many cemeteries other than one on Higby Road. Unfortunately we do not currently do anything special. I’m not sure if he’s very well known other than maybe some long time residents and sports enthusiasts.”

While Adams’ answer is a bit dispiriting, it’s certainly understandable; in terms of general history, Bud Fowler isn’t exactly found in history textbooks in the nation’s classrooms.

Still, it’s perhaps emblematic of upstate New York’s dereliction in honoring one of its most influential native sons. On that note, I emailed Jeff Laing, whose comprehensive 2013 tome, “Bud Fowler: Baseball’s First Black Professional,” is now the definitive biography of the man and the legend. And, as it turns out, Jeff is an upstater, too — he was born and raised in Troy; got married and went to college in Albany; and earned his first teaching job in Schenectady.

Partially inspired by his shared geographic roots, Laing researched and wrote his book, and, not unexpectedly, came to a similar conclusion as me — Fowler’s native state, including Frankfort, has done a woefully inadequate job of recognizing Bud. Jeff emailed:

“I believe that Bud Fowler is an untapped historical resource in the Herkimer-Ilion-Utica area. I never found anything of substance on local awareness (though I never focused much on Fowler’s personal life and Upstate NY presence). … SABR’s 1987 grave service with Monte Irvin is all I ever found.”

This is all in contrast to the impressive job Fowler’s birthplace, Cooperstown, has done in venerating Bud’s connection to that village, including a festive 2013 ceremony in which one of the streets leading to legendary Doubleday Field was renamed Bud Fowler Way.

File photo (I wasn’t there)

About 10 local politicians and roughly 50 fans and residents turned out for the the celebration as Bud’s legacy was marked with the unveiling of a permanent plaque and information kiosk on the formally-declared Bud Fowler Day in Cooperstown. In his April 25, 2013, article covering the event for the Cooperstown Crier, reporter Greg Klein quoted several officials who commented during the ceremony.

John Thorn, Major League Baseball official historian: ”It strikes me that this is Jackie Robinson week but Jackie walked across a bridge that others built. If Jackie Robinson walked across a bridge, he also would have walked across Fowler Way.”

Then-Congressman Chris Gibson: “I don’t think I can fully appreciate what his life was like. We all have challenges in life. I know I have had my share of challenges, but none of them compare to the challenges he faced in his life. He refused to accept someone telling him no. When he died, he left this world a better place because of the challenges he faced.”

Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz: “I certainly think of myself as a serious baseball fan but it was not until I moved to Cooperstown that I learned the story of Bud Fowler.”

(In addition, the Doubleday Field hosts the Bud Fowler Tournament, an annual high school baseball gathering featuring several local and regional teams.)

Katz learned, as did the whole town of Cooperstown, about Bud Fowler. Why can’t others?

A momentary divergence for a brief rundown on Frankfort and Herkimer County, which is crucial to picturing the atmosphere in which Bud Fowler found himself at the end of his life …

The county itself is a thin, north-south area between the Tri-Cities to the east and Utica to the west, with the northern half containing a portion of the Adirondack Mountains and the lower half extending just south of what’s now the Thruway. Today, its population sits at roughly 64,500; in 1910, when Fowler lived there, it was about 56,300. The black population seems to always have been relatively miniscule; on the 1910 Census record for the Odums, the entire rest of the page, except for a neighboring family, is white, and today, African Americans represent less than 1 percent of the county’s population.

Meanwhile, the village of Frankfort — different portions of which rest on the south banks of the Erie Canal and Mohawk River, respectively — is a separately designated municipality as the surrounding town of Frankfort. In 1910, the total population stood at about 3,300; it’s just 2,600 these days, with a paltry 0.04 percent being African-American.

According to an online history on the town and village of Frankfort, an Ancestry.com-sponsored genealogy site states that shortly after Frankfort’s inception way back in the 1790s, early saw, paper and grist mills popped up, but eventually dairy farming, especially cheese production, became the backbone of the local economy. Dairying is extremely common throughout New York State, with farms large and small covering the hilly, verdant landscape.

As for the village of Frankfort’s industrial and commercial development, states another Ancestry piece, whiskey, gunpowder and sulphur factories popped up at first, but when a railroad line was created in the village, a foundry, paint and carpentry shops, creating a flourish commercial and economic base downtown. But the departure of a few industrial facilities created some financial disruption and reassessment by the time Bud Fowler arrives in the 19-oughts.

Demographically speaking, German migrants formed much of the town’s population, but the arrival of the railroad and its construction attracted a large influx of Italian immigrants who sought employment. Today, more than 44 percent of the village’s current residents have at least some Italian ancestry, so the village seems to always have had a fairly diverse populace, at least in terms of white ethnicities.

In terms of sheer population figures, in 1910 (when Bud lived there) the village boasted about 3,300 residents; in 2010 that number was pegged at about 2,600.

However, drawing out gave outward a bit more, Frankfort — and Cooperstown, Fort Plain and other towns associated with Bud Fowler — rest in the geographic region called the Mohawk Valley, so named after the Iroquois tribe that populated the area before being pushed out by German, Italian and other European immigrants.

Erie Canal and tow path

Located pretty much smack dab in the center of New York State, the Mohawk Valley is often described as tying together — much like the Dude’s rug — the Capital region, the Southern Tier and the Hudson Valley, and serving as a bridge between the Adirondacks and the Catskills. The region is sprawling — it incorporates six counties (Oneida, Herkimer, Otsego, Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie) and small-size urban hubs like Utica, Rome and Amsterdam.

But the Mohawk Valley, beyond its geographic significance, holds just as much cultural and, especially, economic import; as the home to the Mohawk River and the innovative Erie Canal, for the last two centuries the region has been a vital shipping, transportation and industrial link in the state. Here’s how the travel Web site mohawkvalleyhistory.com describes it:

“The Mohawk River corridor through the center of the region is the easiest, most direct route between the Atlantic seaboard and heartland America. This key geographic passage was hotly-contested territory, and a huge factor in shaping the history of our American nation from earliest times. …“The legendary Erie Canal, a technological wonder of its era, was built here taking advantage of the convenient path nature carved through the eastern mountain range to construct a more modern transportation waterway. This reinforced national ambitions, expansion of America’s western frontier, and the westward spread of eager settlers, commerce, and the Industrial Revolution. Construction of the New York Central Railroad and New York State’s I-90 Thruway followed. Millions of people now wend their way through this picturesque landscape year-round.”

So that hopefully draws a basic, and admittedly a very novice one, of the atmosphere in which Bud Fowler found himself.

Now, more than a century later, I hopped off the Thruway at exit 30 (the tolls were a perfectly reasonable $5 and change) to track down the grave of John W. Jackson, aka Bud Fowler, in Frankfort.

Using Siri, that most lovable of iPhone guides, I motored west on State Route 5S, parallel to the sleepy Mohawk River, weaving through rolling hills and past cow pastures, then veered off onto Main Street in Frankfort.

The village is relatively small and modest, maybe a two or three miles in length down Main Street. I know because I got to see it three times — in search of a cemetery, any cemetery, I drove all the way through the village, into some more rolling hills and cow pastures and realized that my powers of perception probably were as good as a professional, working journalist needs them to be.

I turned around in a gravel driveway and headed back into town, inexplicably passing up the road marked “Cemetery Street” a second time and necessitating the aforementioned stop at a gas station.

The small parking lot included a truck or two with Trump bumper stickers — I told you upstate is a whole different world from the Big Apple — and inside was an extremely friendly but not particularly helpful cashier who, as previously stated, hadn’t heard of Bud Fowler and wasn’t sure to which cemetery I was referring.

I was a bit flustered — a normal state of mind for me — but fortunately a customer directed me to the only cemetery of which he was aware. He instructed me, with a somewhat quizzical look on his face, left down Main Street and then left up a steep hill. “You can’t miss it,” he said. “It’s a big hill.”

Of course, I’d apparently missed this hill twice already, which didn’t inspired confidence in myself to find it this time. But I shook his hand and thanked him for the help, somehow resisting the urge to buy at least two Snickers bars in the process.

Fortuitously, I actually saw the indications for the cemetery and headed up a hill. The road, lined with ranch houses and well kept lawns, ran right past Oak View Cemetery, which was laid out on the right (north) side of the byway.

I turned down the westernmost dirt and gravel driveway into the burial ground, which appeared to be well kept — if a little time-worn and weather-beaten — and nestled in a shallow valley. The plots, like most stereotypically pastoral cemeteries, were a mix of tall, ornate obelisks and simple, flat, rectangular grave markers, some dating back a couple centuries, several just a year or so old. Here’s a pic I took looking down a path:

I loved it. I was absolutely heavenly.

(Yet another “quick” side note … Oak View Cemetery apparently fell on some hard times in the years after the SABR ceremony for Fowler. In 2011, the Utica Observer-Dispatch reported that, because the non-profit association in charge of Oak View ran out of money, causing volunteers to take care of maintenance, especially lawn mowing, themselves. However, they couldn’t keep up with what was needed, and the cemetery board eventually dissolved, kicking responsibility for the work to the town government, which now awards annual mowing contractors to an outside firm that then performs 10 mows a year.)

Alas, I’d chosen the wrong path to go down, because, contrary to common sense and all of my experience finding famous graves and just wandering blissfully through these testaments to history, I hadn’t done any prep work beforehand and failed to remember that simply wandering around aimlessly through a cemetery in search of a single grave usually doesn’t result in, “Hey, here it is! Imagine that!”

It was a bit warm as well, but at least not steaming-sauna boiling (i.e. normal New Orleans weather), so at least I hadn’t turned into a human version of those commercials featuring delectable, frosty cans of refreshing soda just dripping with luscious condensation (i.e. my normal state in New Orleans).

Plus there’s Find A Grave! Find A Grave is one of the coolest things to ever be invented by anyone. The entry for Bud Fowler’s burial locale states that the plot is along the “northernmost entrance, right side.”

So I drove down the prescribed alley — and couldn’t find it. I even hopped out of the car and started wandering, a strategy that had worked so well just five minutes earlier.

But wait! Find A Grave has a picture of the tombstone! Seriously, this Web site is more stupendous than six hours of cartoons on Saturday mornings. (They still have that, right?)

From the pic, I deduced that the grave was right along the side of the driveway, and, suddenly, voila! There it was.

I stood in front of the marker for a few minutes, paying my respects to one of the most influential yet overlooked figures in the history of our national game. The air was breezy, and the trees that came right up to the edge of the cemetery — and, in fact, had engulfed some of the older, forgotten graves — swayed silently.

These are the moments I relish. For me, cemeteries and grave sites symbolize and embody the memory of those interred there, hopefully in a modest but stately way. (I say “hopefully” because, as anyone who’s involved in or even just familiar with the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project, such a serene state in death frequently eludes many people, both famous and obscure.)

Plus, this was my second cemetery within a week. Just a few days before, I had stood at my grandmother’s grave in the dying mill town of Millinocket, Maine, on a day when the miniscule, swarming black flies typical to early summer in the Pine Tree State swirled frantically in my family’s faces, and a steady drizzle of rain held off just long enough for us to finish the memorial service for Gram and get in our cars for the slow drive back to my grandparents’ house.

My few days in Maine had been fulfilling — it gave me, for example, an opportunity to hang out with my whole family, including my niece and nephews, and I was able to go through my grandmother’s photo albums and family records, including those relating to our Newfoundland ancestry, of which I’m fiercely proud and which will hopefully lead to a written project in itself.

But my time in Maine was also draining and dour. In addition to saying goodbye to our grandmother, the visit to Millinocket represented what in all likelihood be our last visit to a place that had played such a vital role in our lives. When we were kids, our family would spend a week every other summer at our grandparents’ cozy cabin right on the idyllic, forested shores of South Twin Lake, our days spent swimming in water that was clean enough to drink straight from the source, lazily fishing for white perch on a rowboat (it’s where I fulfilled most of the requirements for my Fishing merit badge) and sitting on the dock at desk, gazing at majestic Mount Katahdin in the distance as the sun slipped below the horizon and lit up the northern Maine sky like flame in a campfire.

That’s Katahdin in the background. That’s my sis on the right. And my dad’s arm. Plus water and rocks.

And this trip to Millinocket, the one in which we sadly buried our grandmother and said goodbye to our uncle, was also our last one, and that stung. It all did.

So by the time I stood in front of Bud Fowler’s grave, I was still recovering from that exhausting experience. In truth, it wasn’t the boring drive along the New York Thruway that sapped my strength and attention. It was the reluctant acceptance of loss — creeping, crushing loss.

Because of that, I feel like I needed to stop at Bud Fowler’s grave, not really because I needed a break from driving, but because I needed a catharsis, a way to release the pent-up sorrow and hurt I’d pent up the week before — the sadness I held in because I wanted to seem strong for my family, to show them that I could stand tall amidst emotional trial, especially given my often crippling mental illness, depression and anxiety.

After about five minutes of quiet reflection at Bud’s burial site, I got back in the minivan and wound my way back to the Thruway. (I deeply apologize to the two women I impatiently accosted for directions after getting severely lost — thanks a lot, Siri — and worked up into a minor lather of frustration and exhaustion.) I made it to Rochester, where I visited my mom for six days and had a relaxing, reinvigorating time. Then it was a three-day drive back here to NOLA.

Now, with the Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues conference coming up in just a couple weeks in Harrisburg, I’m getting rested and ready to move forward, cautiously yet confidently. It’s what my grandmother did during her long but frequently arduous life, and it’s what Bud Fowler did, time and time again, in baseball. Especially in upstate New York, time and again. Fist bump to you, Mr. Jackson.

APPENDICES

I.

As promised, here’s compilation of some early 20th century articles about Bud’s activities in his home state. I want to note that for some of the dates, scores and other numbers, I gave my best approximation when the type on the page was too blurry or obscured for my feeble, Coke-bottle glasses to discern.

I also stress that this rundown is by no means comprehensive, and in many cases it’s just the bare bones description of the events in question, sometimes without all the background and contest. For such detail, I highly recommend the work of Laing and McKenna, among others. Beyond that, my notes are in brackets:

May 14, 1895, Elmira Star-Gazette — The paper stated: “Anson [presumable Cap Anson] has a rival. Bud Fowler, the second baseman of the colored Page Fence Giants, is forty-eight years of age [actually not even close]. He has been playing ball since 1869 [also not close, unless his team wanted a second baseman who didn’t shave yet].”

May 21, 1901, Auburn Bulletin — Barnes’ American Colored Giants — piloted by Fowler, “late of the Cuban X-Giants” — preps for a three-set series at Norwood the week. The slate will have the Giants budding heads with, among other, a club from Weedsport that apparently had been shifted in its entirety from Allentown, Pa. — so essentially a bunch of ringers, maybe?

April 15, 1909, Ilion Citizen — The Citizen, in a front-page cluster of baseball articles no less, noted: “‘Bud’ Fowler is getting together at Frankfort an all colored team who will open the season with the typewriter artists [probably from the Remington Typewriter Works] Sunday, April 25th.” The article references the Utica State League and claims that the Ilion Typewriter Works team “is the strongest semi-professional team in the valley.” It’s not entirely clear whether the Utica State League references a city-wide circuit or Utica’s entry in that year’s New York State League, the Pent-Ups. (This baseball coverage, by the way, shared the front page with, among other items, an article about a two-headed calf.)

April 16, 1909, Syracuse Herald — The Herald previews the impending launching of the 1909 baseball season in the city of Oneida by highlighting an upcoming clash between Fowler’s Black Tourists and the local Holihan’s Pets club at Citizens’ Park. The Pets squad includes a bunch of studs from Syracuse, included the Syracuse U. varsity team. Holihan’s is prepped to “cross bats with the fast Colored Giants of Frankfort. This team has been gathered together by ‘Bud’ Fowler, an old-time colored ball player, and is said to be the equal of other colored teams touring the country.”

April 19, 1909, Utica Herald-Dispatch — Bud just organized another incarnation of the Black Tourists with the help of a dude named “Tead” Pell of the Deerfields [likely a squad from Deerfield in Oneida County]. The aggregation, scheduled to report the following Sunday and its slate on May 1 against the Ilion Typewriter team, is composed of “Pell, Williams, Northrup, Douglas, Jackson, Williams, Taylor, Frasier, Green, Shepard, McKinney, Dana, Williams, Bradley.” Potential foes are requested to contact Fowler in Frankfort.

April 30, 1909, Utica Daily Press — It appears that, around this time, the barnstorming Black Tourists helped christen the summer hardball season in several towns and for many teams in the Mohawk Valley. Here, we have Fowler’s troupe launching the baseball slate in Bud’s own Frankfort by squaring off against the Remington Typewriter team from Ilion the following morning. The first attempt to play the match was nixed by a rainout.

May 12, 1909, Olean Times Herald — An unnamed squad (but most likely the Tourists) led by Fowler gets thumped by the St. Bonaventure University team, 17-3. Opined the paper: “The colored men played a dopey, slow game … Usually the colored teams are full of snap and ginger, and their coaching is half the show; but yesterday they were speechless, and there was nothing doing.”

June 3, 1909, Utica Observer — Fowler’s Black Tourists are scheduled to arrive in Utica to cross bats with a tip-top team from the local Remington firearms factory. The Observer reports that the Tourists “have just returned from a western trip … They have defeated many of the strongest semi-professional teams in the State.” A news brief item in the Ilion News from the same day also previews the match, saying that “the Colored Tourists are one of the fastest teams now touring and are under the management of ‘Bud’ Fowler.”

June 4, 1909, Utica Observer — Stated this issue: “Bud Fowler’s Colored Tourists will play the Remington Typewriter team at Devenpeck Park Sunday.”

June 6, 1909, Utica Observer — Reports the paper: “The Remington Arms team won an easy victory from Bud Fowler’s Tourists at Frankfort yesterday afternoon. Brown for the Arms team only allowed the colored men two hits and the score was 11 to 4.”

June 8, 1909, Utica Daily Press — Yeah, that game against those gun guys didn’t pan out too well. Reported the Press: “Bud Fowler’s Tourists must have wished that they were still en route when the Remington Arms finished with them this afternoon in a one-sided game played at Frankfort, in which Bud’s [players] were defeated by the score of 11 to 4.”

June 10, 1909, Ilion Citizen — Bud’s bunch didn’t get their mojo back in another contest against the Arms aggregation. Reports the paper: “Bud Fowler’s Tourists came to grief Monday at Frankfort when the Remington Arms team made the score 11 to 0.”

April 29, 1910, Hudson Columbia Republican — Bud visits relatives in town. Noted the publication: “‘Bud’ at one time pitched for a Hudson nine against Stottville when the nines were bitter rivals, and he has not forgotten that game.”

Aug. 8, 1911, Amsterdam Evening Recorder — Here’s the scoop: “Henry B. Jones, of St. Louis, a Western promoter of amusements, has purchased a one-third interest in the all star colored team ‘Bud’ Fowler of this city, and at one time one of the best players in the country, is going to take with him on a tour of the Pacific coast. The deal was closed recently in New York.”

June 20, 1914, Hudson Evening Register — The paper describes an apparently important game between two [presumably] white teams that turned out to a lopsided victory for “Bobbie Storm’s aggregation” and Homestead park. Why this particular contest was important — and not just one randomly plucked from the local sports almanac — is unclear, but the kicker is that the article claims “‘Bud’ Fowler umpired.” Although the Fowler we know did occasionally crouch behind home plate, especially in his later years, there’s no indication whether this Bud Fowler in question is the famous one, i.e. there’s no reference to his race, age or prominence.

A March 1916 issue of the Ogdensburg Journal — Three years after Fowler’s death, this paper asserts that Bud, not noted major leaguer and Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan, pioneered the use of the shinguards in baseball. Stated the Journal:

“But even this pet theory [for Bresnahan] that was all settled and everybody satisfied, has been upset by the revelation that one Bud Fowler, a gentleman of color, with played with Binghamton back in the eighties, wore the first shin-guards. Bud had his troubles, we are now told, for there were those who resented the intrusion of the smoke [yikes!], and it was a regular thing to come into second base spikes first. Bud found he couldn’t last over five innings in any one game, so he got some barrel staves and put on armor.”

Aside from the cringe-worthy term “smoke,” it’s a good theory, but a more popular one nowadays is that it was actually Chappie Johnson, a turn-of-the-century pre-Negro Leagues catcher. Another paper from around the same time, though also smelled a scoop when it came to who was at the forefront of the shin guard revolution — a 1916 article in the Syracuse Herald asserted:

“‘Bud’ Fowler, a gentleman of color, if you please, was the first ball player to wear shinguards, and the players of the old Binghamton International league club of 1884 were the first to utilize the feet-first slide when stealing bases. All parties involved had a motive — in other words, they had a method to their madness. Fowler was about three shades darker than a raven’s wing, but was such a clever ball player that he found no difficulty in hooking up with clubs playing in organized ball, and was duly signed as a second baseman by the Binghamton club of the International league back in 1886. Players in that circuit didn’t take very kindly to this son of Ham, and so Fowler had to wear his shin guards.”

Putting aside the (what the writer probably thought were clever) racial connotations — the son of Ham Biblical reference and the whole raven’s wing deal (not sure if Poe was involved in that allusion) — and possible detail quibbles, that paragraph — written by a reporter named simply “Bob” (we’ll, ah, we’ll talk to Bob) in his “On the Sport Firing Line” column — does pretty capture what actually happened during Fowler’s sour experience in Binghamton.

II.

I also wanted to include a JPG of this article from the June 14, 1908, Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin. It’s a relatively comprehensive bio and career record — reportedly dictated by Fowler himself to the reporter — of the man who, more than 20 years early, was given the bigoted boot from the city. It’s absolutely crucial to note that the article makes no reference to the 1887 brouhaha that led to his premature departure from the home team. There’s too much in the article to write up in this already painfully long blog screed, so here’s the actual article:

The article, interestingly, ends with: “He is now located in Binghamton, operating a barbershop at No. 135 Washington street, but has by no means retired permanently to a quiet life. Indeed he is even now dreaming dreams of further travels.”

III.

Finally, I want to reference an article from the January 1992 issue of the journal, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, by William M. Kimok. In the essay, Kimok gives a comprehensive, detailed and fascinating study of black baseball activity from 1907 to 1950 in New York’s Capitol District (Albany, Schenectady, Troy), which is adjacent to the Mohawk Valley and was well traveled by Bud and his various aggregations. In his conclusion, Kimok writes:

“Throughout most of the period between the turn of the century and 1950, professional and semi-professional baseball in New York State’s Capital District followed the national trend and remained a segregated activity, as all black ballplayers experienced much of the bigotry seen by their non-ball-playing brethren. Yet, it appears playing baseball locally did provide advantages for some blacks — even for those who were not fortunate enough to have been recruited to play ball for big-city teams in the professional black leagues.

“But the most important finding of this study is that the attendance figures, the enthusiastic newspaper reports, and the obvious affinity white clubs demonstrated for attracting black ball clubs as opposition all serve as undeniable proof that blacks, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, were among the greatest promoters of baseball in the Capital District.”

Final note (I swear): Harriet Odums, Bud’s sister with whom he lived the last few years of his life, ended up living a long, full life. After her husband, John, died — I couldn’t pin down the exact date of his passing — Harriet moved shuttled around upstate New York, living in Utica in the 1930 Census and in St. Johnsville in the ’40 Census. And actually, John and Harriet are listed in the 1905 State Census as living in St. Johnsville with Sarah Lansing, a relative of Bud and Harriet’s mother. (Harriet might have even spent a few years in New Jersey, but I’m not certain.)

St. Johnsville is in Montgomery County, as is Fort Plain, where her brother Bud was born and her family lived before moving to Cooperstown, where she was born. Harriet died on June 7, 1956, in Canajoharie, also in Montgomery County. She was interred in Fort Plain Cemetery, where — Find A Grave again! — it appears several other family members (including her, and Bud’s, father’s and mother’s lines) are buried.

In fact, it looks like Montgomery County (the town of Mohawk, specifically) is where John H. Jackson (Bud and Harriet’s father) was raised with his parents, Prince and Diana Jackson, for at least part of his life.

OK, that’s it. I totally swear.

Father’s Day, a little late

Yours truly, Dwier Brown and Mike Sorenson

James Earl Jones, he of stentorian voice and accomplished film and stage career (that’s him next to Slim Pickens in the B-52), is also one of the few actors who have portrayed current or former Negro League players on screen. He played catcher Leon Carter (the Josh Gibson-type character) in “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” and in “The Sandlot,” he brilliantly settled into the role of Mr. Mertle, a former Negro Leaguer who eventually befriends the kids on the sandlot team.

But, of course, arguably Jones’ most famous movie role — my other JEJ fave appearances are “Coming to America,” “The Hunt for Red October,” the afore-referred-to “Dr. Strangelove,” oh, and voicing some dude in a black helmet — is Terence Mann, the disillusioned author hounded by Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams.” In the role, Jones delivers one of my favorite lines in movie history: “Peace, love, dope! Now get the hell outta here!”

It’s been noted by a few jaded critics, with whom I kind of disagree, that “Field of Dreams” presents only part of a complex baseball history — the players who come out of the corn field are all white ones from the segregation era, with black players, i.e. Negro Leaguers and pre-Negro Leaguers, completely left out. (I also believe “Hoosiers” presents a subtle racism, i.e. a team of all-white, aw-shucks country boys facing the big, bad, integrated city school, but that’s for another day.)

However, the fact that the main theme of “Field of Dreams” is spoken by a black writer who idolized Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field is extremely significant. Jones delivers one of the most famous soliloquies in cinema history, and, when Mann is chosen by Shoeless Joe as the one to chronicle the game of baseball in the great beyond, it’s a scene almost as moving as the last one in the film.

Which brings me to the “news” peg of this blog post … Two Sundays ago, my friend Mike Sorenson and I went to the Rochester Red Wings home game against the Thruway rival Syracuse Chiefs, with the Wings escaping with a 6-5 victory.

Late in the game we and the rest of the media types hanging around were joined in the pressbox by Dwier Brown, who played John Kinsella (Kevin Costner’s dad) in “Field of Dreams.” Brown’s screen time in the flick isn’t that long, but Brown commits to film one of the most moving scenes ever in movies, one that’s guaranteed to make any grown man cry by the end.

Brown is currently touring ballparks around the country promoting his book, “If You Build It … : A Book about Fathers, Fate and Field of Dreams,” and while I was home in Rochester, he pulled into Frontier Field for the Wings game. Dwier is a modern Renaissance man — in addition to his acting credits, Dwier is a successful author, speaker and blogger who’s been interviewed and written up in numerous news outlets. You can check out his stuff on his Web site, which I highly recommend.

While Dwier was in the Frontier Field pressbox a couple weekends ago, Mike was able to do a mini-interview with him, which Mike will write up in a story soon. Being the ever tactful fellow I am, I butted in to ask Dwier his thoughts on meeting and working with James Earl Jones, the man who’s figured so prominently in so many classic baseball movies.

Dwier said that of all the people on the “Field” set, he was most excited to meet Jones because of the latter’s storied and decorated career. Dwier related how he saw Jones in the film’s make up trailer, facing a wall of mirrors getting prepped for the day’s shoot, and that it was almost hard for Dwier to believe that he now had a chance to meet such a legendary, inspirational talent.

Dwier was just a wee bit anxious about initiating the encounter, but he told us today that Jones was exceptionally friendly, open and even gregarious, even introducing himself with, “Hi, I’m Jimmy.”

Which is pretty cool.

Dwier was glad to take a photo with Mike and I (shown above, with photog credit to longtime Rochester sportswriter Craig Potter).

I was going to post this last week, but I decided to hold it until after Father’s Day, which makes for another perfect news peg.

Now, if only Hollywood would make full-length films about the Negro Leagues … But maybe more on that eventually.

Gus Brooks: Turning macabre into memory

Photo courtesy Jeremy Krock

Is it OK to laugh at someone’s death? What if it’s a character on TV or the movies or a book (yes, those do still exist)? What if it is really, really funny?

We laughed when Ol’ Blue keeled over in the kiddie pool of, ahem, lube while looking at two nekkid coeds. We chortled when Danson and Highsmith’s hubris spurred them to splat themselves on the pavement while trying to catch a few crooks. Hell, Tarantino turned a teenage boy getting shot in the head by a mob hitman/disco champion into a guffaw getter.

Many of the cartoons and slapstick classics my generation and earlier ones grew up with — Tom and Jerry, Looney Toons, Laurel and Hardy — made us laugh when the characters turned into skeletons or flew up to the sky as harp-plucking angel or ended up flat on the ground with those black Xs in place of their eyes.

Even real-life going-to-the-great-beyonds can be and have been used as glib, comedic launching pads. One of the post popular sections of “News of the Weird” was “Thinning the Herd,” about idiots and doofballs dying absurd deaths because of their own dumbassery. The “News” writer, Chuck Spepherd, eventually stopped doing the section because some people, for some insane reason, felt that mortality-induced Schadenfreude was lacking in taste, but the weekly column still features bits about actual people actually almost killing themselves in the most elaborate-yet-birdbrained ways.

And what about just the term “kicking the bucket”? You don’t find too many obits that begin, “John M. Putzwad kicked the bucket Monday after a lengthy bought with cancer …” It’s a goof term created to make light of death.

That brings us to my/our role as baseball historians, researchers and writers. Because every so often we come across an archival item about death on a baseball field, and we’re made aware of how easily our society can morph such a tragedy into humor on the big screen or smartphone. Say, Adam McKay or the Wayans Brothers or Judd Apatow writes a movie script about a dumb or nasty or old player getting his/her hilarious comeuppance, which then triggers the develop of the hilariously wacky hijinks that ensue.

St. Paul Globe, June 17, 1895

But when I was at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., delving into the official archives of the Evangeline League, I came across a yellowing newspaper with a huge banner story about 23-year-old Crowley Millers outfielder Andy Strong in July 1951 being struck dead by a bolt of lightning while he was manning the outer garden during a game. When the lightning hit his head, Strong collapsed and died immediately.

Again, this is something that could be played off in films or cartoons as a nutty plot device, or it might be something found in the occasional macabre story in The Onion.

But in real life, such an occurrence is without a doubt horrifying to everyone involved. Strong was in his very first season of pro baseball and left behind a wife and 1-year-old child, while teammates, opponents and fans in the stands were stunned that such a tragedy could even occur on a laidback evening in bayou country.

As I learned when putting together this post about the recent efforts of the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project, a similar misfortune occurred to pre-Negro League outfielder Gus Brooks, one of the recent beneficiary of the NLBGMP’s work.

On June 15, 1895, the famed Page Fence Giants, a groundbreaking 19th-century “colored” team under the capable charge of Bud Fowler, squared off against a local white team in Hastings, Mich. Brooks, a seasoned base ball veteran from St. Louis who had just joined the Giants a couple months earlier, was stationed in center field when he suddenly collapsed and died about two hours later. Early reports asserted that severe sunstroke had caused his death, but later articles stated a heart ailment had been the primary factor in his passing at the reported age of 26. Here’s how the June 16, 1895, issue of the Detroit Free Press described it:

“G. Brooks, of the Page Fence Giants, colored, dropped down with heart disease to-day while playing ball in the center field. He was taken to the hotel, where he died two hours later. He joined the team in April and was one of their best players. His home is in St. Louis, Mo., where he has a grandmother living and is supposed to have no other near relatives. After his removal another man was substituted, and a hotly contested game was finished. The Hastings team was strengthened by players from other clubs, Miller, the Nashville pitcher going late into the box.”

The Giants ended up winning, 10-9, but news of Brooks’ fate spread across the Midwest, with papers in Chicago, St. Paul and elsewhere.

Brooks — full name Gustavus B. Brooks — had made his name in top-level colored base ball (two words back then) by then, first in St. Louis with the Black Stockings in 1888, and the West Ends from 1888 to 1892. Although little if anything has been ferreted out about his early life — or his private life at all, really — he quickly showed off his hardball skills. In August 1889, he clubbed three doubles to help the West Ends trounce the pride of Southern colored base ball, the New Orleans Pinchbacks, for example, while manning first base. Brooks stuck with the West Ends through 1892 (he also suited up for the Red Onions in St. Louie).

Brooks then trekked to the Windy City, where, over the next three seasons, he donned his spikes for the Unions, Goodwins and Ward Unions. Although any claim the title of “colored champions” in the 19th century was always tenuous and decidedly not official, while Brooks — who had settled into his prime position in center field by now — played in Chicago, various newspapers bestowed the Unions and Ward’s Unions with that mythical crown.

After promising stints in St. Louis and Chicago, in 1895 Brooks was ready to move on to what was arguably the first all-star team in blackball history — the Page Fence Giants of Adrian, Mich. With the great Bud Fowler as its manager and leading recruiter, the Giants were a conglomeration of youthful but talentged hired guns coming together from all corners of the colored base ball world into one mega-team, a professional operation through and through, both on and off the field. The Page Fence Giants heralded a new era in blackball and brought the sport into the 20th century by serving as a model for future aspirants.

And in 1895, they were freakin’ loaded, including shortstop/captain Grant “Home Run” Johnson, and the imposing pitching corps of Billy Holland, George Hopkins and George Wilson.

In fact, Hopkins and Holland joined Brooks in the Giants’ troika of standout recruits for the ’95 campaign. In February of that year, the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean made a point of noting the arrival of the three on the Giants roster as the team was preparing to launch a tour of the South. After the Giants came back north in the early spring, they criss crossed the Midwest as a premier barnstorming unit, crossing bats with white and black teams. In April, the Inter Ocean, when previewing a contest between the Michiganites and the Chicago Edgars, the paper discussed the Page Fence newcomers thusly:

“Three of the players — Hopkins, Brooks and Holland — were for years the mainstays of the local colored club, the Chicago Unions.”

So the Giants proceeded to jaunt across Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, with mixed results. Brooks anchored the outer garden most of the time.

Which brings us to Hastings, Mich., on the ill-fated date June 15, 1895, when Brooks, to use a term from a St. Paul Globe headline, expired. Early reports, such as that Globe dispatch, claimed that Brooks collapsed from sunstroke and died a little while later. The article stated that Brooks “joined the team in April and was one of their best players. His home is in St. Louis, Mo.”

Further newspaper reports stated that a search commenced in hopes of finding and relatives in St. Louis or Chicago, but none, apparently, could be found. And there’s where it gets a bit confusing. Initial coverage asserted that Brooks’ body was immediately being shipped to Adrian for burial. However, a Dec. 19, 1895, dispatch in the Grand Rapids Evening Press quoted Grand Rapids native and Page Fence Giants co-owner Len. W. Hoch, who, in addition to confirming that the franchise would field a team for the 1896 campaign, gave an update on the search for a Brooks relative that threw a wrench in the works:

“It is strange, but we never have found a clew [sic] to that boy’s relatives. After hunting in vain for some one who knew him or his friends were buried him there at Hastings. No, it wasn’t drink that killed him. If every team manager experienced so little trouble from that source as we have they would all be happy.”

As a result of that burial discrepancy, last week I called Riverside Cemetery in Hastings to confirm Hoch’s claim, but there was no record there of any Brooks being buried in all of 1895 as well as a few years earlier and later.

(Hastings is quite a small town; as of 2010, the population stood at 7,350, and at the time of the 1895 game, roughly 3,000 made Hastings their home. It officially became a city in 1871, just a couple dozen years before the Page Fencers arrived. The burgh’s black population seems to have always been miniscule; in 2010, only 0.5 percent of residents were African-American.)

In an effort to wrap up this post, I asked Jeremy Krock whether he and other NLBGMP workers had found any type of burial records or death certificates at all for Gustavus B. Brooks. He responded in the negative, added that the only thing he had to go on was a newspaper article.

Hence, with no record of any burial and Hastings and/or exhumation and transporting to Adrian, the home base of the Page Fence Giants, we might never know what truly happened to Gus Brooks, aside from the quirky tragedy of his death. I dare say that, until a few years ago, Brooks — with no known family to speak of and so little documentation or contemporary media coverage — might very well have been even less than a footnote in history. He would have been at best a ghost, a fleeting last name in an almost ethereal box score. With that type of actuality, laughing at the near cinematic circumstances of his death — the type of demise that’s been the subject of guffaws and belly laughs throughout movie, TV and literary history — seems just plain morbid.

However, from a certain point of view, combing through decades-old cemetery records and painstakingly reading and noting grave markers and headstones could be viewed as macabre, if it wasn’t for the higher purpose of bringing recognition and respect to these baseball men and women of yore.

Locating and marking a forgotten soul’s burial site elicits passion, dedication and fascination from those who pursue it. In an online article titled from this past February titled, “Speak Their Names,” writer Shakeia Taylor quotes Dr. Krock thusly:

“A person dies three time. First when their body stops functioning, second when they are buried, and finally, the last time someone says their name. My goal is to keep the names of Negro Leagues ballplayers and others connected to it alive.”

Taylor’s article also details the circumstances of Gus Brooks’ death and the reasons his memory was chosen by the project, including his enduring status as a blackball mortality milestone:

“Gus Brooks, a Page Fence Giants center fielder, died of a heart attack while running out a fly ball during their inaugural season. Black baseball teams often performed acts and hijinks during games to attract crowds. Because of this, many in attendance did not realize Brooks had died; they thought his collapse was part of the entertainment. His was the first death associated with black baseball. Brooks’ family was unable to claim his body, and in 1895 he was buried in an unmarked grave in Oakwood Cemetery in Michigan.”

Many thanks to James Brunson for supplying a bio of Gus Brooks. One facet of James’ article that’s worth noting is that it states that neither Brooks’ grandmother in St. Louis, nor his relatives in Chicago were able to pay to ship his body back, an assertion somewhat different from contemporary articles’ claims that no family could be found at all.

Monuments, men, memory … and moving forward?

P.B.S. Pinchback

In New Orleans in the 1800s and early 1900s lived a gentleman and Confederate Army veteran — a former captain, actually, who served and was captured at the siege of Vicksburg as a heavy artillery officer — named Toby Hart. At the same time, there also lived in New Orleans another gentleman named P.B.S. Pinchback.

During the quarter-century or so following the end of the Civil War, both Hart and Pinchback played significant roles in Louisiana politics, culture and society. As it turned out, they were linked, albeit loosely, by the still-evolving, soon-to-be National Pastime — baseball, or as it was known way back in that day, base ball (two words).

New Orleans Times-Democrat, Oct. 11, 1874

However, Hart and Pinchback were very, very different in one significant way — in fact, one could argue that it was the only way that mattered in the post-war Deep South. Hart was (obviously, given his military service record) white. Pinchback was black. (To be more accurate, Pinchback was mixed race, or mulatto as was the lingo then.)

So how, then, given such a massive socio-political chasm, were the two gentlemen connected by base ball? Because Hart was instrumental in the development of base ball in New Orleans in the 1880s and, in particular, in the founding of the city’s very first professional sports team, the New Orleans Pelicans baseball club.

Before the team’s formation in 1887, Hart notched numerous base ball achievements, being a prime mover in the creation of the city’s Lone Star Base Ball Club in 1859, charter membership in the Louisiana Base Ball Association, guiding the push to build the New Orleans Base Ball Park, key involvement in the founding of the New Orleans Base Ball Association, and significant contributions to the early Gulf Coast League.

Until just this week, I’d honestly never heard that much about Toby Hart, even though I live in NOLA and have studied the 19th-century base ball scene here. Most of my research into said topic has been confined to colored base ball in the epoch, which is embarrassing, because a good historian does need to examine the full scope and backdrop of what he or she is detailing. I’ve known very well the crucial role Abner Powell, for example, had in the blossoming of the national pastime in the Crescent City, but, unfortunately and with some shame, I hadn’t made the acquaintance of Capt. Hart.

Abner Powell

Meanwhile, Pinchback — full name Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback — became the namesake for one of “colored” base ball’s first championship teams, the New Orleans Pinchbacks, who, in the late 1880s, not only dominated the hardball scene in the Big Easy, but traveled throughout the lower South and up through the Midwest as far as Chicago. In 1888, the Pinchbacks staked a claim to the national amateur colored championship.

Why was Pinchback important enough to earn the admiration of one of the country’s earliest black base ball successes? Because on Dec. 9, 1872, Pinchback, a Republican, became not only the first African-American governor of Louisiana, but the first black governor in the history of the entire United States.

This being the South in 1872, though, Pinchback’s governorship was both controversial and convoluted — and, it goes without saying, not viewed all that fondly by the state’s white populace. Era-wise, we’re dealing with the heart of Reconstruction, a time of carpetbaggers, scalawags, lynchings, agitators, midnight rides and scoundrels of all stripes. Pinchback’s assumption of the governor’s office was the result of political in-fighting, bureaucratic confusion and racial resentment, the full tale of which is too involved and (even to this day) a little too bewildering to explain or document in this blog post.

The same went for his eviction from the governor’s chair, an event that formally happened on Jan. 13, 1873, just over a month after his landmark swearing-in. Although Pinchback’s achievement was without a doubt extremely significant in our nation’s history, it remains controversial and murky even now.

Given federal support — led by the irascible, often less-than-sober President Grant and Radical Republicans in Congress — for Reconstruction, the fact that a black man achieved a governorship in the South wasn’t that surprising. Neither was his departure as Jim Crow was settling in and white Southerners seized absolute power in the region. So, then, Pinchback’s legacy was, in one way, memorialized by the dozen or so colored guys who proudly formed the Pinchbacks base ball club.

This recent flurry of thought on my part has been stirred mainly by the current chaos this city, New Orleans, has witnessed over the last week or so. Granted, in many ways NOLA is all about chaos, but in a good way. We are a people who are loosey-goosey and hang-loosey. Our unpredictability and zaniness is both a source of immense proud and an essential part of who we are as a community.

But the chaos lately has been of a much darker, foreboding nature. It’s been turmoil that, tragically, exposes a painful truth about where we as a city, as a state and even as a entire country find ourselves — even 152 years after Appomattox, even almost that long since Toby Hart helped forge baseball in the Big Easy and P.B.S. Pinchback inspired a stellar base ball team, a searing, seemingly irreconcilable philosophical, cultural and historical chasm still plagues and haunts us.

For what seems like an eternity now, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu — a member of a powerful political dynasty in this state — has pushed for the demolition and removal of four statues that have stood as testaments and tributes to an era of white supremacy in the South that stretched back before Jamestown up through at least the 1970s.

It’s a shameful, harrowing legacy that — regardless of whatever Jeff Sessions, David Duke and other alt-righters espouse — still lingers and even pulsates at this very moment. (Yes, I know that Jeff Sessions is different from David Duke, but let’s be honest, not all that much. He’s also not technically a member of the alt-right, but again, we’re parsing details. If you think that statement is an outrageous smear against our current attorney general, well, then sad day for you. Suck it.)

The four segregationist statues memorialize three pillars of the Confederacy — Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard — and the despicable “Battle” of Liberty Place, an instance of local white insurgency in 1874 in which a mob of violent members of the paramilitary White League and similar types attacked black New Orleans police officers and National Guard troops and seized control of the city for three agonizingly long days.

The riot helped signal the end of Reconstruction in the city and the growing, ominous pall of Jim Crow, segregation and virulent white supremacy. And notice that the flash of violent anarchy occurred just a year and a half after Pinchback blazed a trail in American society.

(Please, at this point, spare me also any moaning that these racist, violent insurgents from 1874 were all Democrats, which “proves” that it’s been the Democratic Party all along has been and to this day continues to be the racist bunch in this country. I don’t really have the time, energy or patience to once again dive into an explanation about the complexities of history and the fact that stuff, you know, changes over said history. Stuff it.)

The Battle of Liberty Place

Well, actually, that last monument doesn’t exist anymore; as many of you might have seen or read, city workers — protected by cops in snipers and bulletproof vests — last week tore down the Liberty Place memorial in the wee hours of the morning. The action signaled Landrieu’s tenacious, unflagging commitment to removing the four reminders of segregation (even though that process will apparently cost a lot more than what he had projected and touted to the public).

Naturally, the covert removal of the Liberty Place monument spurred white reactionaries — cloaked in the same tired, half-baked and utterly transparent notions of “heritage, not hate” and “it’s white culture that’s ever only done cool stuff for civilization” espoused by such shining American lights like Richard Spencer, Louisiana’s own David Duke, and honorable luminaries Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott and, yeah, Jeff Sessions — to protest the covert, admittedly somewhat weasely razing of the monument.

So now we have infuriated defenders of the segregation-era Southern legacy — many of them armed to the proverbial teeth with semiautomatic rifles and buttloads of magazines in the name of the Second Amendment and open carry and all that stuff — and equally irate, kind of irrational proponents of cleansing the city of these historical memories, all squaring off at the Davis Monument. There’s been bottles hurled and epithets spit out and cops called in an orgy of discontent, distrust and vitriol on behalf of all parties.

“The Civil War is over,” the mayor said. Which is absolutely true. So is Reconstruction. So is (minus some scattered remnants) Jim Crow, at least officially.

But the resentment isn’t. The stereotyping isn’t. Neither is the bigotry or the hatred or the ignorance. And neither is the complete and largely universal societal unwillingness to adhere to such seemingly basic, fundamental tenets as the Golden Rule and walking a mile in others’ shoes.

The recent disheartening events here in New Orleans have definitively proved that. Here’s what happened just today. I wasn’t there, but it appears as though the NOPD kept things more or less calm. But it took lots of metal barricades and closed-off streets and a heavy police contingent. Just a quick comment about that link — note that the pro-monument schmuck quoted early on said white people built this country. We know that’s absolutely fudging false. (Slaves did the heavy lifting, the back-breaking toil at the end of a whip and the barrel of a gun. Never mind the fact that it was white supremacist Christians who stole the entire continent from the people who were already here, but that’s another closet of skeletons.)

So has the ugly, unraveling national backdrop against which our events here are unfolding. The last two years in our country have been surreal (at best) and nightmarish (at worst), a downward spiral of insanity and a warping of reality that have mutated the fabric of our society and the strength of our democracy.

For the last few months, as a baseball researcher and writer, I’ve been in many ways trying to view the tempest through an historical lense, to place into context our current events against the surge of our collective past and the role the American pastime has played in the development of our national consciousness.

And without a doubt, baseball has played a key role in that process. Our national sport has been a vital avenue for different ethnicities to assimilate into and become welcomed by our country and its heritage. For a century and a half, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Asian, Latino and other immigrants and newcomers have slipped on their mitts, laced their cleats and wrapped their fingers around the horsehide, and in doing so they’ve helped our nation realize that they are all simply people too, with shared desires and needs and goals and challenges and aspirations. Likewise, Native Americans, who witnessed nearly their entire population and culture wiped out by genocide, have found solace and healing on the diamond.

Even African-Americans were able to take a this burgeoning sport and make it their own, to place their stamp on the game and have the game impact their lives in myriad ways. As the terms changed from colored to Negro to black to African-American, baseball was a source of pride and resistance, a way to proverbially spit in the face of oppression, to see the waving of rebel flags and the blinding flames of crosses and the failure of the Senate to formally outlaw lynching and defy the ignorance and arrogance of those who would call them lesser people, the cursed sons of Ham, a group of folks who just aren’t smart or moral enough to meet the challenges of governance and self-sufficiency.

Baseball gave Oscar Charleston — a man who had volunteered for military duty and served his country despite the rigid segregation within the Army in which he served — to reportedly rip the hood off a Klansman’s head and stare the coward down toe-to-toe.

The sport allowed Satchel Paige, a lanky Negro from Mobile, to become one of the most famous and fabled athletes of his day, an irresistible magnet that drew thousands of white fans to Negro League games and see for themselves the pitcher who could lick any major league hurler and make the heads of the best white sluggers spin with perplexed wonder. Satchel, by force of his ability and his charisma and characteristic flair, demanded attention from the entire country, and he more than earned it.

Baseball is what, in April 1947, forced white society — and the nation as a whole — to finally begin to accept that African Americans were not ashamed, and they were not afraid. The shit that Jack Roosevelt Robinson endured, the indignities and insults and verbal venom that he deflected with stoic pride … it was silenced by his bat, and his glove, and his feet, and his character. When he made white pitchers and catchers look foolish over and over again by audaciously stealing home and daring them to stop him, the entire country — the entire world — paid attention.

Here in New Orleans, baseball served as a conduit for a humble hotel proprietor named Allen Page to build an athletic and entrepreneurial empire through his ingenuity and moxie. Allen Page came to be respected by this entire Southern city by taking what meager scraps tossed to blacks by Jim Crow and becoming one of the most important baseball kingpins in the South, someone who regularly hosted not just hardball heroes but even the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis himself.

And Page even did former Confederate officer Toby Hart one better. Where Hart brought the Big Easy its first professional baseball team, Page delivered the city its first, and so far only, major league level baseball team, when in 1940 he enticed the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League to split their time between that metropolis and the Crescent City.

As the city’s black population geared up for the New Orleans Stars’ home opener against the Cleveland Bears in July 1940, Eddie Burbridge, sports editor of the Louisiana Weekly (New Orleans’ primary black newspaper) dubbed it “the greatest day in the history of Louisiana baseball.”

Eddie Burbridge

A parade, complete with hundreds of cars and a whole bunch of Boy Scouts in formation, preceded the game. Even as black America’s athletic messiah, heavyweight Joe Louis, was in the midst of absolute dominance in the ring, the Stars still garnered front pape ink in the Weekly. On the sports page, Burbridge wrote:

“This is the thing we have waited for, and the thing we should proudly support. … Come out, fans. Pack Pelican Stadium until it creaks, so that this dream that has become a reality will stay with us from now on.”

Alas, it didn’t last; the Stars changed locales a few more times before closing up shop in 1943, in the middle of World War II, as hundreds of local African-American men and women contributed to the war effort by putting together thousands of Higgins boats in the city’s seven such plants.

But the fact that it was a black businessman who brought the best baseball players in the country here — in addition to the arrival of the Stars, for 30 years Page produced dozens of exhibitions and all-star games featuring the best Negro League teams and players in the country, with clubs like the Homestead Grays and Kansas City Monarchs bringing legends like Satch, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Dandridge and Hilton Smith, Hall of Famers all — should absolutely not be lost to history. In fact, the work of Page and his assistants stands as one of this city’s shining historical examples of black pride and ingenuity. That’s right. It was black baseball in the South that made us proud.

But moving on … it was here in New Orleans that, in 1965, Tulane baseball player Stephen Martin became the first African-American student-athlete in the history of the vaunted Southeastern Conference. That’s not just first black SEC baseball player. That’s first black athlete, period.

Stephen Martin

Oh, and by the way, the 1950s showed that African-American baseball fans in New Orleans and the rest of the state were some of the most committed and successful sports-related activists in the country. In 1956, after ever-progressive Louisiana banned integrated sporting events throughout the state, black sports followers (and a few sympathetic white activists) in New Orleans launched a mass-scale boycott of sporting events here and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association minor-league baseball circuit continued to stubbornly and blinded refuse to integrate its roster (beyond a few token “tryouts” that were identified very quickly as shams and PR bullcrap). The team’s pedigree traced all the way back to — yep, you got it — Confederate Capt. Toby Hart’s efforts in 1887, and during the ensuing 70 years, the Big Easy franchise remained ensconced in segregation.

Even a dozen years after Jackie Robinson led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the World Series in his rookie season, even 11 years after the Cleveland Indians won the World Series with Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Satchel Paige on their roster, even after most other minor league circuits integrated, and even after Henry Aaron and Willie Mays and Roy Campanella and Roberto Clemente and numerous others had become superstars … the New Orleans Pelicans wouldn’t budge.

(In fact, the Pels even rejected the idea of loaning their stadium to a collegiate game between Loyola University and Xavier University, an HBCU in the city. The bigotry was that petty and obstinent.)

I mean, the New Orleans black population began to hate the Pelicans. In a 1956 newspaper column, none other than Jackie Robinson relayed this potent memory:

“When [the Dodgers] played in New Orleans during spring training the Negroes in the stands booed every time they announced something about the New Orleans Pelicans. They booed so loud, in fact, that the rest of the announcement might just as well not have been made. …

“Because of that, they put some kind of unofficial boycott on the team and they are not going out to the ball park. At the same time they are doing everything they can to make people realize that if they expect them to come out and see baseball then they will have to give them somebody of color on the team.”

So, at the same time a massive boycott against Jim Crowed sports in the state in general gained traction, black New Orleanians doggedly refused to patronize the Pelicans. Plus, even white NOLA baseball fans eventually got tired of being deprived of the best quality hardball the sport could now offer; even strident bigots get curious when integrated teams are winning World Series and black players begin dominating league MVP voting.

The intractable indignation worked — from a high of more than 400,000 turnstile clicks in 1947 (hmm, what else happened in the baseball world that year?), the Pelicans’ attendance plummeted to less than 100,000 just nine years later.

What followed was an attempted sale of the team in 1957 and rumors that the Pels were about to go under. With fans of all stripes avoiding Pelican Stadium in droves, the franchise that had been launched by a Confederate captain breathed its last after the 1959 season. To say the local black populace and press was giddy would be an understatement. Louisiana Weekly editor Jim Hall, who had been at the forefront of the sports boycotts, offered this terse but beautiful requiem: “Nuf Sed about Jim Crow Birds.”

An unsigned editorialist for the Weekly went a bit further, and it was delicious:

“Not a fit of weeping was found among the local Negro baseball populations, when the Grim Reaper claimed New Orleans’ Double A ball club …

“They (the fans) did not express or feel grief or sorrow last week, when … the local coroner’s report listed the Jim Crow Birds officially dead.

“Instead, there was a jovial feeling among the tan fans, for this corner listed the the apparent total lack of fan interest as one of the prime causes of the Birds’ death. …

“Negro fans who had supported the Pels for years, put into effect a ‘Stay-at-Home’ policy. The solid support of the fans not to attend any of the home games began to hurt the club at the gate. In the past, it had been the Negro patrons’ attendance which had kept the Birds in a healthy financial state.

“But without their support at [the] turnstile … the Birds began staggering on the ropes. …

“Their passing of the Pelicans was by no means unexpected. The Negro fans did not mourn the loss of team, for there was no sympathy for the team which had slapped them in the face with segregation.”

Damn. As Jim Hall would say, nuf sed.

But wait, there’s more … Just as the Pelicans dropped dead, so did their former circuit, the Southern Association. Because, just like the Pels, the league also refused to integrate at all — none of its teams ever featured any color whatsoever. Zilch. The demise of the Pels and several other teams weren’t enough of a harbinger for the clods in the Southern Association.

Thus, after 60 years of existence, in early 1962, the Southern Association — one of the country’s oldest and most storied minor leagues — finally folded up its bigoted tents and collapsed under its adament, dogged and ultimately stupid and self-dooming unwillingness to integrate.

Seems that the brouhaha started by NOLA fans in 1955 spread like wildfire to the entire rest of the Southern Association. Because, until its dying breath, the SA virulently and foolishly refused to allow any black players (except for Nat Peeples, who played a token two games with the Atlanta Crackers in 1954), and it cost the league its livelihood and its fans their smug sense of superiority.

The reaction of the black community, including the press, was a gleefully familiar one. Wrote Cal Jacox of the Norfolk New Journal and Guide:

“There will be no weeping and wailing here for the death … of baseball’s Double A Southern Association League.

“True to tradition, its team owners went down fighting to keep their lily-white status. They insisted on maintaining the status quo and, from here, the loop’s departure from the baseball scene … is good riddance to a lost cause.”

(It should be noted that in addition to plummeting attendance, another effect of this staunch refusal to accept the inevitable flow of social change was Major League teams’ skittishness toward signing any more minor league affiliation agreements with SA teams, leaving the Southern loop squads to twist in the wind of their own segregated flatulence. That was true of the Pels, who found themselves without a parent club by the late 1950s.)

(Another note: the 1950s sports boycott in Louisiana also proved one of the death knells of the Evangeline League, a low-level minor circuit with teams throughout central and southern Louisiana that earned a joyous reputation as a freewheeling, anything-goes operation that made the league both famous and notorious. When Evangeline teams fell under the blanket of the state government’s disastrous athletic segregation law, they, much like the Pels and other SA teams, were besieged with boycotts, too. Unlike the larger league, the Evangeline provide a bit more pliable in terms of its policies, and some integration did occur in the loop. However, the Evangeline died out in the 1950s, a demise that owed just as much to the advent of home air conditioning, televised baseball than and, umm, a gigantic corruption scandal as to racial issues. I can personally attest to the fact that it’s really hard not to like the Evangeline League. For one, yes, it was a little more progressive than the Southern. But the EL was just gloriously wacky. But, digressing …)

Finally, it was baseball — or, rather, base ball — that spurred a group of “colored” men in New Orleans to form what became one of the most powerful teams in the country under the moniker Pinchbacks. The nascent national game provided not just those men, but the entire black populace an opportunity to express cultural pride in the first African-American governor in our country’s history.

The Pinchbacks carried the banner of their race every time they took the field, especially those times when a good chunk of white New Orleanians turned out to watch the black men’s prowess. New Orleans’ African-American population attached themselves so much to the club that when the Pinchbacks’ trekked northward to play challenge matches in St. Louis and Chicago, several carloads of fans caravanned with them.

The Weekly Pelican, one of the city’s earliest African-American newspapers, chronicled the Pinchbacks’ travels as well, frequently referring to the club as “our boys” or “our team.” When the aggregation departed for the Windy City in August 1889, the Pelican, under the headline, “They Are Off!” reported on the intimate connection between the colored squad and its fans”

“The Pinchbacks are composed of the best players in the South, and no doubt will hold their own with the Northwestern clubs. … As an evidence of the appreciation of their many friends for past favors the Pinchbacks will give a grand complimentary festival at the Young Veterans’ Hall to-night. One thousand invitations have been issued, and no doubt the affair will be an enjoyable one.”

In a slight deviation from the overall national trend in base ball in the 1880s toward rigid segregation, New Orleans ball fields frequently featured match games between colored teams and white squads; it was a phenomenon that, much to the city’s credit at the time, revealed the Crescent City’s relatively more fluid mores when it came to race.

Weekly Pelican, July 6, 1889

That included the Pinchbacks, who once in awhile crossed bats and held their own with white squads like the Ben Theards; the contests routinely drew several hundreds of fans — none too shabby before the days of bleachers and grandstands — and the Weekly Pelican roused the black community into supporting “our local champions.” For one July 1889 contest against a white team referred to only as “the New Orleans league team,” the Pinchbacks battled for a purse of $300 and all the gate receipts from the game. The Pelican previewed the match:

“The Pinchback’s [sic] are composed of our best colored players here and no doubt will make a credible showing against the Southern League champions.”

(Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any record of the game’s results.)

However, such relaxed social conventions, even in New Orleans, didn’t last long; by the start of the 1890s, the curtain of segregation had ended any sort of formal, integrated activity on the ball field.

(Many thanks to James Brunson for guiding and encouraging me in my 19th-century colored base ball research.)

Honestly, I wasn’t playing on writing this much about the details of these examples of New Orleans racial breakthroughs and triumphs, but producing this essay reminded me just how freakin’ awesome this shit was. So my apologies.

At this point I should stress that I don’t exactly mean to completely slag off to massive contributions men like Toby Hart made to baseball and to New Orleans history. What they achieved was significant and quite impressive. It showed determination and a passion for the national game at a time when the game needed it the most — at the beginning, when it was still struggling to lay down roots.

But it’s also quite difficult for me, as a writer and historian of African-American baseball, to view Hart’s accomplishments without a jaundiced eye. It’s simply impossible for me to examine what they created and sustained for decades without factoring the bigotry and fear that were one of the pillars of those accomplishments.

Every time I read local newspapers and their coverage of baseball from the first half of the 20th century — and, in fact, even earlier — how can I not make a note of the last sentence of so many articles: “A portion of the stands will be reserved for white fans.” It’s a sentence that Allen Page had to include in every single press release he sent out, and it’s one every black baseball fan here had to read if they wanted to learn the latest dope about the Black Pelicans or the Algiers Giants or the Jax Red Sox.

And now, here we are in 2017. Here we NOLA folks are, watching with a mix of incredulity and anger as fighting breaks out around some statues. Many of us know that it makes our city look ridiculous and backwards, and we are ashamed of it. The Stars and Bars clashes with Black Lives Matter, the future collides with the past, and misunderstanding and fear cast a pall over our city. The fact that this is all going on during Jazz Fest — one of the crown jewels of our local culture and something that draws thousands of tourists and their spending money into our confines — only serves to deepen our collective black eye.

However, to be sure, the Civil War, including the role it (and its aftermath) played here in New Orleans, is a complex one, replete with necessary nuance and (no pun intended) shades of gray.

Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard

Take, for example, P.G.T. Beauregard himself. True, he was a successful and revered general during the war, but what often gets lost is that, post-war, Beauregard adopted extremely progressive beliefs and stances, especially for a white Southerner. He pushed for equal rights in the state and even large-scale integration. (In that way, he was like Gen. James Longstreet, another highly decorated Confederate officer who commanding police and other forces in New Orleans during the Liberty Place riot and helped defend and shelter the victims of the violent mob. A year later, he and his family were forced to leave the city for health and safety concerns.)

So perhaps Beauregard should be regarded not as a villain, but a hero here in New Orleans. Instead of tearing down his statue, what about editing or reworking the plaque statement on it to stress what he worked so hard for after the war?

And, to be fair, maybe Capt. Toby Hart wasn’t a virulent racist either. Maybe he even worked to help the local freedmen. Maybe he was just a guy who served his country, then went back to civilian life and admirably dove into promoting and nurturing baseball in his home state. I’m not sure, and if anyone could provide any further information, it would be very welcome.

Or, then again, maybe Hart was just a step above Confederate Gen. Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, who was intimately involved with the early KKK. Or, for that matter, former Union Gen. George Custer, who, before his just comeuppance at Little Bighorn, made it his mission to wipe out as much of the indigenous population as he could.

And, yeah, Jefferson Davis — who died here in New Orleans but eventually had his remains moved to Richmond — remained unrepentant about his actions and his white supremacist beliefs.

Meanwhile, only 62 African-Americans dot big league rosters today. That troubling condition might not have a direct correlation to the aftermath of the War Between the States, but just about every modern race-related issue is to a certain extent rooted in slavery and Jim Crow.

Seventy years after Jackie Robinson stepped out on Ebbets Field, our sport is losing his spiritual and athletic descendants. The reasons for that exodus are many and complex, and even noble, successful programs like Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academies (including one here in NOLA at Wesley Barrow Stadium) have only begun to address the crisis.

But there seem to be few Allen Pages or Jim Halls or New Orleans Pinchbacks. They’ve vanished, and we have no idea if they’ll ever truly or fully come back.

This rambling diatribe has been an attempt at drawing a link between my passion for baseball history and what I’ve unfortunately been seeing daily here in my adopted hometown, and tracing a connection from the power of protest and pride to our country’s bleak social and political landscape. Whether I pulled that off in a coherent manner is probably debatable, but I gave it a shot.

Quite often, when our modern news outlets retreat, as they are wont to do, into the false, manufactured urgency of imagined 24-hour news cycles and a blinding need to stay relevant via tenuous, slipshod reporting and legions of unnamed sources, I like to slip out the side door and dive into online archives and databases of newspapers from eras and mindsets past.

True, such slinking away into antiquity and anachronism is, in a way, just a desperate man’s desperate attempt at finding some sort of sanity away from the jumbled, acidic reality of today. It’s escapism, simply put.

But it’s also what I love, and it’s what I do to (kind of) pay the bills. I take solace in the triumphs of yesteryear, and I derive comfort in the refreshed knowledge that at some point, we could find our way to justice, fairness and even, if we really put our minds to it, virtue.