Oh captain, my captain …

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Sam Lacy

A year or two after I graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s in journalism, I was searching for inspirations and influences, role models and heroes, people in the news industry — past or present — to whom I could look up and pattern not only work after, but my life and my worldview.

It was around that time that I had a revelation, in the person of Sam Lacy, the longtime sports writer/reporter/columnist/editor at the Baltimore Afro-American. From that point on, Lacy was among the brightest lights in my journalistic firmament.

In my last post, I did my best to compose a tribute to one of my other major influences, Dr. William Wiggins, who passed away just this past December. In this commentary, I want to trace how Lacy impacted my work and my life.

And I feel it’s critical that Sam’s legacy — not just on me but on the world of sports journalism as a whole — be detailed and recognized at this crucial juncture in the history of our nation and our media.

Twenty years ago, Lacy was inducted into the Writer’s Wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a milestone that also came exactly 50 years after Jackie Robinson’s crossing of the Major League Baseball color line. But history — including, most recently, the Robinson biopic, “42” — has, in a way, skipped over the challenges Sam Lacy faced in and out of the press box, how he persevered, and how his triumphs impacted history.

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While “42” prominently featured the role Pittsburgh Courier writer Wendell Smith played in helping Jackie to survive that brutal first season and aiding in the general public’s acceptance of Robinson in the “mainstream” of the national pastime.

That was undoubtedly appropriate, because Smith did, to a large extent, lead the way in clearing a path for Robinson in Organized baseball. There’s a reason Smith, in 1993, was the first member of the black press to receive the Hall’s prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award for excellence in sportswriting.

But some members of Sam Lacy’s family apparently wasn’t happy with what they saw as the movie almost completely overlooking Lacy and the key role he played in baseball integration. Of course, for the purpose of the movie’s narrative, it might have made storytelling sense to streamline things as much as possible.

But it seems unfair that Lacy was left out. After all, four years after the venerated Smith received the honor, Sam became the second (and so far, last) such journalist to garner the Spink Award.

And, perhaps, that’s what it took for America and its sports pages to recognize Sam. It was at that point that larger society, and not just readers of African-American newspapers, came to understand Lacy’s importance on journalism and sports as a whole. The Washington Post, for example, ran a lengthy article by reporter Kevin Merida profiling Sam’s career and outlook in June 1997. The headline for the piece was, “Going to Bat for Robinson: Venerable Sportswriter Sam Lacy Helped Change the Face of Baseball.”

In his story, Merida noted how Lacy’s Spink accolades prompted a flurry of recognition for Sam, including an appearance on “Nightline” and an honorary degree from Loyola College of Maryland. Such honors, Merida penned, were absolutely overdue:

“Such attention is rare for a member of the black press, but Lacy is unique. He has become, by virtue of longevity and talent and wit, the oral historian for a group of crusading black scribes who played a little-known role in desegregating the big leagues. …

“Sam Lacy has outlasted the curmudgeonly owners he went up against, as well as most of his sportswriting colleagues, black or white. Indeed, he is said to be the nation’s oldest working journalist.”

That point right there presents one reason why Sam made an impression on me — his persistence, advocacy and zeal didn’t stop when the majors were integrated. And, years later, it didn’t slow up when he suffered a stroke.

He kept pursuing his passion for what’s right and just until practically the day he died, May 8, 2003, at the spry old age of 99. That’s 99! And he completed his final column for the Afro just a few days earlier. It literally took death to pry Lacy away from his trusty pen and paper. That devotion to his craft and to his readers is something that deserves admiration from any sportswriter — I’m certainly in awe of his inexhaustable work and dedication attempting — attempting to hone his or her craft.

I’m not the only one in the Negro Leagues community who draws lessons from Lacy and remains awed by his unceasing doggedness. One of my other role models, Leslie Heaphy, wrote in a 2008 essay in the journal “Black Ball”:

“He worked almost to the end, continuing to write about the glories and indignities he saw in the sporting world. Looking through the thousands of columns that he wrote over eight decades of reporting one sees a pattern of agitation, chronicling and championing causes. Whether it was pushing to get hotels desegregated for the ball players or encouraging Mr. [Clark] Griffith to desegregate the lowly Senators, Lacy gave up and never turned his back on what he thought was right. He helped keep the Negro League players and lots of other athletes in the press when the mainstream papers ignored them.”

Over his eight-decades-plus (another !!!) career, he didn’t just cover baseball in his popular column, “A to Z.” His advocacy spanned just about every major sport, from boxing (such as his coverage of Cassius Clay’s controversial membership in the Nation of Islam and transition to Muhammad Ali) to football (he lobbied tirelessly for the hiring of minority coaches in college and the pros) to golf to basketball to horse racing and everything in between.

There’s point of admiration No. 2 for me — a breadth and depth of interests and abilities that gave him such a multi-tooled flexibility and adeptness that his impact was felt across the sports spectrum. His ability to change gears, to shift on a dime to the pressing issues of the day just astounds me. I sometimes feel like writing solely about the Negro Leagues and baseball history can be exhausting and knotty. But Sam did it all, and he was always, always invigorated about his topic du jour. He even took on international issues, like American athletes participating in events in South Africa during the apartheid era.

In an August 2010 commentary on the Web site “The Sweet Science,” for example, writer George Kimball detailed Lacy’s coverage of Joe Louis’ heavyweight career, especially the roller coaster highs and lows experienced by the Brown Bomber. Kimball specifically relates how, at the 1941 title bout between defending belt holder Lewis and white challenger Buddy Baer — a searing fight eventually won by Louis via a heated disqualification in Lacy’s hometown of Washington, D.C. — esteemed Washington Post scribe Shirley Povich personally escorted Sam from the “colored press” section to a prized ringside seat.

For those and other exploits, Lacy joined Povich in the first class of recipients of the now coveted A.J. Liebling Award established by the Boxing Writers Association of America. But, in his 2010 piece, Kimball rightfully lamented how Lacy had yet to be ushered in the “observers” section of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, a slight Kimball stated “that should … be addressed, and at the earliest possible moment.” Astoundingly, the omission still hasn’t been rectified.

In fact, some historians and writers believe Sam’s first major scoop was about pigskin, not horsehide, while he was a beat writer for the Washington Tribune, a since-folded black weekly, in 1937. Sam sniffed out that star Syracuse University signal-called Wilmeth Sidat-Singh wasn’t what the public was told and believed he was.

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Wilmeth Sidat-Singh

Singh had been born to African-American parents, but after his father died, Singh’s mother, Pauline, married an Indian (i.e. South Asian) doctor named Samuel Sidat-Singh, who then adopted Wilmeth and gave him a new surname. Because of that — and because America’s sportive segregation allowed Indians to play with whites — Wilmeth, a black youth, “passed” as a South Asian during competition, even being dubbed “the Manhattan Hindu” by the press.

In the fall of ’37, the Orangemen were scheduled to travel to College Park to square off against the segregated squad from the University of Maryland. Heading into the game, Lacy uncovered a shocker — that the light-skinned Wilmeth Sidat-Singh wasn’t actually Indian but African-American, a discovery that prompted Maryland to, well, lose its shit and refuse to take the field against an opponent with a black player. The result? Previously unbeaten Syracuse, sans their leader, was blanked, 13-0.

Thanks to its upended of racial stereotypes and mores, wrote Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite decades later, the episode laid bare the two-faced, irrational, bigoted reality of our country’s athletic industry, turning fans’ (and writers’) perceived reality on its head. It was a stunning series of events triggered by Lacy’s unwavering pursuit of the truth, even if that truth really mucked things up on the sports page.

On top of his amazing versatility, Sam’s writing was deft, often subtle and consistently penetrating. He wasn’t a big fan of melodrama or sentimentality, eschewing flourishing bravado in favor of a fearless poke in the eye. He preferred to be plainspoken and no-nonsense, driving write at the point and stating his case in such a point-blank way that you had to pay attention. He could be blunt, almost making the reader uncomfortable with his honesty and caustic wit, even when that honesty might have peeved someone — or many people — off.

Take, for example, a column from 1939 (and re-published in 1994 in the excellent compilation of legendary reporters’ work, “Black Writers/Black Baseball”), in which he questioned insistence of lobbying for the entry of “colored” players into the major leagues while omitting one key facet of such an action. Wrote Sam:

“In fact, every corner has been surveyed, every stop-gap plugged by people who sought to lend a hand in the [desegregation] campaign. Even major league club owners have been quoted and league presidents solicited. The [major] leagues, from the commissioners on down to the players, have been canvassed for their views on the matter.

“But no one seems to have given a tinker’s damn about the ideas of the guys they’re trying to boot into the organized game [emphasis mine].

“The colored player, evidently, is big enough in the mind of the public in the mind of the public to make top-line baseball, but too small to have any worth toward opinions on the matter. …

“Since man first became endowed with conscience and a sense of appreciation, he has felt keenly elated at the prospect of getting something Why the, shouldn’t the colored player be interrogated on the proposal to open big league ball to him, something we think [italics in original] he wants, but never bothered to ask him [original] whether he does?”

Sam continued the column by displaying his aversion to hypocrisy and doublespeak by going ahead and interviewing players himself, doing the dirty work that other journalists and baseball figures shied away from. And the responses were revelatory, uncovering a level of skepticism on the part of the rank and file about the prospect of integration.

From Vic Harris’ prescient foreshadowing of blackball’s eventual death, to Jud Wilson’s pessimism about the South’s recalcitrance toward integration, to Dick Lundy’s weary cynicism, Lacy’s interviews revealed a complexity to the issue that rarely, at least up to that point, broached. He laid bare the stark fact that the prospective integration had more to overcome than just timidity and reluctance. He even showed Felton Snow’s doubt in the Negro Leagues’ best players’ ability to “act right” [his words] and his belief that “[M]any of the good players are bad actors …”

That column puts on full display Sam’s understanding that lofty ideals were always marred, at least partially or albeit temporarily, by stark, gloomy reality, and he was bold enough to tell his readers something they might not have wanted to hear.

Of course, Sam could be very optimistic and upbeat, too, and he knew that, with persistence and quiet dignity, anything was possible. As Associated Press writer Alex Dominguez explained in a 1991 profile of Lacy, the columnist attempted — and usually succeeded to lead by example, a trait and willingness that earned him the respect of and acceptance by his white colleagues. That positive reception was exemplified in 1948, when he became the first African-American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Dominguez’s article included comments from an interview with Lacy, who accepted all the (belated) accolades he was starting to receive by deflecting many of them toward his colleagues.

“I did pioneer. I fought for it, but I can’t take the credit for doing it all,” he told Dominguez.

Later in the article, Lacy recounted a now-famous tale of adventure in a press box in one of the press boxes he visited while covering Robinson:

“I was told I couldn’t go in the press box. That happened quite frequently, like in Cincinnati, for example. I took a chair up on the roof. Shortly after I got up there, several of the white writers came up along with me.

“‘I said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ They said they came up for some sun. They showed they were supporting me. They had just come from Florida and certainly didn’t need any more sun.”

Dominguez’s piece concluded with another comment from Sam, this one representing a prescient summary of his career — and the history he helped to change:

“I was not particularly interested in my personal achievements. What I wanted to do was open a door for someone else. I felt we would never have Blacks in the Baseball Writers Association if we didn’t have one in [the press box].”

When Sam Lacy died in 2003, the tributes from his colleagues and acolytes poured forth as they noted the passing of a man whose quiet confidence and unwavering search of the truth and what was right. One of the most prominent modern inheritors of Lacy’s legacy is award-winning New York Times commentator William Rhoden, whose “Sports of the Times” columns picked up the socially conscious torch that Lacy ignited so many years ago.

Like Lacy, Rhoden — who is one of my favorite writers working today — has never been intimidated by popular opinion and hostility from pundits, the public and the athletes he covers. (Check out his incendiary book, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” and the combustible reaction it received from certain quarters.)

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William Rhoden

In a May 17, 2003 column, Rhoden feted one of his sportswriting forefathers, describing Sam as, perhaps, journalistic equivalent of a construction worker who rolls up his sleeves, puts on a hard hat and uses a jackhammer — in this case, his caustic, cutting pen — to dig into the foundation of the matter. Wrote Rhoden:

“Through Sam, I learned that this was a nose-to-the-grindstone business — if you worked the way he worked. And I liked the way he worked. Someone asked me whether Sam showed me the ropes, but he essentially told me that there were no ropes, just a long, hard road littered with challenges.”

“Sam was a crusader; I became a crusader.”

Later in the column, Rhoden penned a paragraph that both lauded Lacy as a visionary but also revealed that the recently passed legend was also human, a curmudgeon who sometimes suffered from a “these kids today” attitude.” Wrote Rhoden:

“Lacy was part of a generation of African Americans who believed that struggles or movements were larger than the needs and wants of one individual: larger than Jackie Robinson, larger than Joe Louis, larger than Muhammad Ali, larger than the younger generation of athletes he didn’t always understand.”

Such a comment encompasses why sportswriting and historical perspective are necessary tools to producing vital, pertinent, pressing journalism — a trait I’ve tried to cultivate myself during my career, with admittedly less success than Sam — but also how clinging to the past and failing to update one’s beliefs and principles can sometimes prevent you from adapting to the ever shifting mores of sports and of society.

And yeah, that’s my worldview to a T, largely because studying and writing about the Negro Leagues and the grueling but ultimately successful process of integrating the national game. As Negro Leagues historians, almost by definition, must couch and contextualize our work through the prism of the racial and social injustice that marred our American society for so long.

Taking a magnifying glass to the annals of this country’s darker eras necessitates such a longview perspective. Becoming a good Negro Leagues historian and writer simply must include the elimination of sociopolitical myopia as well as the discarding of rose colored glasses. We must, by our nature, confront our nation’s psychological demons and the ways they have, in a way, permanently scarred our society and our sport.

And doing that also requires us to study and analyze the groundbreaking work and writings of such legends as Sam Lacy, Wendell Smith, Fay Young, Bill Nunn, Dan Burley, Chester Washington and many others, for they’re the ones who not only helped change our national consciousness but also served as scribes and chroniclers who record that evolution for later generations to enjoy and interpret.

One such chronicle is Sam’s autobiography, “Fighting for Fairness: The Life Story of Hall of Fame Sportswriter Sam Lacy.” For me, while player autobiographies — like the revelatory and celebratory “I Was Right on Time,” by Buck O’Neil and “The Black Lou Gehrig,” by Buck Leonard — no doubt serve as both an inspiration and a wellspring of knowledge and wisdom — it was “Fighting for Fairness” that probably impacted me and my career the most.

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Sam’s book recounts, in exquisite detail, every step of his journalistic experience and growth, from his hardscrabble youth (he was himself a multi-sport star as a young adult) in Washington, D.C., during the first two decades of the 20th century; through his early columns for the Chicago Defender in the 30s; his coverage of Robinson and Rickey and steamrolling integration; the indignities of being refused service and refuge at hotels and restaurant; through his later crusade for diversity in the front offices and coaching staffs; through the turbulent 1960s; and everything that came after, such as receiving long overdue awards and accolades from his peers, the public and the sports industry.

Throughout the tome, Sam sprinkles bits of social commentary amongst his recollections, placing each chapter in the context of the day and the hurdles he and his contemporaries had to clear along the way. Take this excerpt from the third chapter:

“In the mid-1930s, black sportswriters kept tabs on what was going on in their own communities and in national sports involving blacks; at the same time, we tried to keep the heat on that period’s racial segregation in sports.”

Or this from Chapter 8:

“Leadership in the major leagues of basketball, baseball, and football were hard to come by for black coaches and managers, even after years of integration. My efforts to promote the hiring of blacks for these jobs over the years included providing Afro-American readers with running accounts of the hiring of whites, some over and over again even though they were consistently posting losing records — the old retread system.”

And how the press often serves as a surrogate for the public interest and and its frustration with the dual realities of athletic arrogance and crippling hypocrisy:

“One didn’t have to be a sportswriter to realize that athletes suffered a lot of self-induced tragedies. Sometimes other players took it upon themselves to purposefully endanger opposing competitors. Sometimes the jeopardy evolved out of doing what other Americans did with impunity. Pleasant or not, no matter how news came down the pike, I had to deal with it.”

Such a piercing objectivity seems more necessary than ever today, when modern journalists and their work are being assailed as “fake news” and “enemies of the American people.” The media as a whole suffers — partially self-induced and deserved, undoubtedly — from abysmally low approval ratings from the public and is constantly forced to fend off and absorb body blows from countless entities and individuals who have zero respect for and trust in what they do and their profession. We face an open hostility — again, a big part of it earned — and misunderstanding about the intricacies and complications of what we do, and our efforts are frequently upended by a flood of “alternative facts” and outright fiction.

In this day and age of social media and blogs and Web series and podcasts, it seems almost impossible to discern what pioneers like Sam Lacy — or Grantland Rice or Red Smith or any other pillars from our past — would think about the nature and flow of information swirling around American citizens. For an old-timer like Sam — who, until the day he died, wrote his columns in longhand with his pen (a pen!) — it all would be baffling and overwhelming, not only because technological innovations weren’t his thing, but also because our modern media are often virtually devoid of the kind of straightforwardness and stark, clear-eyed analysis that Sam employed to elicit the change and evolution that our society so desperately needed at the time.

The world has changed so radically, for the better and for the worse, since Lacy’s heyday, that it almost warps reality persistently plagues it with bigotry, angst and spite.

Sam saw such distortion and obfuscation for what it was, and he slashed through the haze and smoke and mirrors to record history accurately and frankly. That simply isn’t happening today, and I’d imagine that such a dismal state of journalistic affairs would dismay Sam, but only to an extent. For someone as brave and dedicated Sam Lacy, it would just be another monstrous monolith just begging to be torn down and turned to rubble. He’d do what he did for eight decades — roll up his sleeves and get shit done.

Sam concluded his autobiography with an expression of humility and self-realization, another two traits I have attempted, however humbly, to assimilate into my work:

“Celebrity is all right for some people. I don’t like it. In all honesty, I can’t claim to have done anything to justify all the attention, though I do appreciate it. In the case of baseball integration, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I think that anyone else situated as I was and possessing a bit of curiosity and concern about progress would have done the same thing.”

That paragraph right there is so sublimely insightful, candid and reassuring that I can’t help but be encouraged and invigorated by it; not only is it saturated with modest, self-effacing analysis of his own person, but it also reflects a deeply held belief that anyone, if given the right tools and possessing an inquisitive spirit and desire for enrichment, can succeed on a personal level as well as a society-altering level.

For me, Sam Lacy was and is a hero, a teacher, a role model, an inspiration, someone I would dearly love to have met and asked for a word or two of a wisdom and acuity earned through a long lifetime of swimming against the current, bombarding the bastions of injustice, and delving into one’s own soul as a reflection of the society and reality around him.

My mentor, my friend

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Farewell, Doc

Every so often, I’d like to tell y’all about some of the folks who’ve influenced me over the years, people who sparked the interest in the Negro Leagues that have driven me to promote the rich blackball heritage. These are the guiding lights in my life, my career and my passion …

The first pillar of my faith was undoubtedly Dr. William Wiggins Jr., the longtime fixture in the African-American Studies Department at Indiana University; he was even a founding member of the department’s faculty and eventually spent a lengthy tenure as its chairman. He arrived in Bloomington in 1969 and became the first African American to earn a PhD in folklore.

Doc Wiggins, as he was affectionately known to his peers and his students — and there were thousands of them over his tenure — taught numerous classes at IU over the years, but his most enduring and popular ones were the Black Church in America, and Sports and the Afro-American Experience. (His pursuit of the former class sprang from his own experience as an ordained minister and holder of a bachelor’s degree in divinity.)

It was the latter in which I enrolled during my sophomore (or maybe it was my junior) year at IU. Being a lifelong sports fan and a beat writer — I covered football, track and legendary Little 500 bike race (made famous by the movie, “Breaking Away”) on the sports desk at the Indiana Daily Student — athletics was my thang. (Well, along with listening to and learning about music, a love I pursued by taking two rock ‘n’ roll history classes taught by Glenn Gass and Andy Hollinden, but that’s another tale for another day.)

So taking Doc Wiggins’ sports class was, well, a no-brainer. We gathered at Woodburn Hall, one of the older buildings on the IU campus, and I quickly learned that my classmates included track triple jumper Jack Sullivan, with whom I’d become friends by covering the tack squad, and Calbert Cheaney, who earned the Wooden Award during his senior season playing under Bobby Knight. (Insert chair throwing joke here.)

And it was that class that opened up the world of sports history to me and fed my mind with both knowledge and passion. We learned about boxing icons Jack Johnson and Joe Louis (the Brown Bomber was one of Doc’s research specialties), Olympic trailblazers Jesse Owens and Wilma Rudolph, path-clearing net luminaries like the great Althea Gibson and and influential activist Arthur Ashe, and, of course, Jackie Robinson.

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Joe Louis

But in addition to soaking up the events and characters that made the history of black sports legendary, the course went deeper, exploring the social, political and economic ramifications of the challenges, trials and tribulations faced by African-American athletes. And not just the stars in the black sports firmament, but the average Joe and Jane who used sports to escape dismal childhood situations and attempt to become somebody in the world.

We traced the development and evolution of African-American activism in athletics and learned about the figures who helped show people that sports wasn’t just games, but a vital thread in the fabric of American society. We started in the 1960s with Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and others.

Perhaps most importantly, at least in terms of influencing my worldview, were the efforts and determination of Dr. Harry Edwards, who spearheaded the black athletes’ consciousness movement in the latter part of the decade, a drive that culminated with the Olympic Project for Human Rights and the famous, hand-raised protest made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand for the 200 meters event in Mexico City in 1968.

I then read Edwards’ seminal tome, “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” which proved to be one of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read. (Hopefully more on that in an ensuing post.)

The class then dived into the way collegiate athletics — especially high-profile sports like football and men’s basketball — often mouthed false promises and lip service to starry eyed players who were led to believe that they had a chance to become a well paid professional in the NFL or NBA. Countless athletes, however, eventually learned the were simply and cynically be used and chewed up by “The System,” a process that included the downplaying and outright discouragement of academics, which left them unemployed and without a college degree by the time the machine had spit them out.

The course also delved into one of the key issues (one that is often alluded to in popular discourse but rarely broached candidly and honestly) of African-American sports stardom — why black athletes seem to succeed in certain roles in certain sports like football, baseball and basketball, i.e. are they simply just genetically disposed to be better than whites at running, jumping and catching?

It’s a topic famously (or infamously) raised by football prognosticater Jimmy the Greek in the 1980s, one that got the sportscaster fired in disgrace — not, I think, because his comments weren’t explicitly racist or bigoted, but because American society continues to be so squeamish when it comes to facing up to such challenging, uncomfortable topics that we avoid them at all costs. In the class, our discussion of this tricky subject revolved around the excellent examination by John Hoberman, “Darwin’s Athletes.”

And … most pertinent to this here blog is that Sports and the Afro-American Experience became my first exposure to the Negro Leagues — when Doc began discussing Jackie Robinson’s life and career, he revealed to us and to me the overlooked but extremely crucial role blackball played in American sports history. By learning about Jackie, we also took in the Negro League team that launched his professional career — the one and only Kansas City Monarchs.

The floodgates open at that point … Satchel. Cool Papa. Buck (Leonard and O’Neil). Rube. Effa, Monte and Ray. It was only the beginning for me.

As part of the curriculum, we read Rob Ruck’s detailed, delightful book, “Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh,” which, of course, included whole chapters about the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.

That pretty much clinched things for me. Doc Wiggins had created a thirst in me that continues to this day.

During my senior year, I received an honors grant to research none other than Josh Gibson, a project that led me to read Mark Ribowsky’s bio of the Black Bade, “The Power and the Darkness,” as well as William Brashler’s popular novel, “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.”

But there was more, much more … Upon graduation, I moved to Rocky Mount, N.C., the hometown and lifelong residence of Buck Leonard. It was an opportunity I naturally couldn’t pass up, and I visited Buck at his home, a pursuit that instantly became one of the greatest moments of my life. (More on that encounter coming soon.)

While working for The Daily Southerner newspaper in Tarboro, N.C., I wrote an article about the induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996 of pitcher Bill Foster, who lived in Tarboro for several years and hurled for semipro teams based across the Tar River in the historic town of Princeville.

Life progressed after that, and I shifted around the country, moving from North Carolina to Massachusetts to my hometown of Rochester, N.Y. But I kept in touch with ol’ Doc Wiggins, even writing a profile about him for Indiana Alumni Magazine.

The article focused another way Doc remained dedicated to the student body at IU — for decades, he served as a mentor and father figure for dozens, if not hundreds, of student-athletes, helping to guide them through the challenges of balancing the field and the classroom and keeping them on the straight and narrow toward earning a degree and becoming functional, productive and happy members of society as a whole.

In the process, Doc became a valued and trusted advisor and confidante to several IU sports coaches, including none other than Bobby Knight, but also football coach Bill Mallory (the greatest pigskin pilot in IU history) and revered track/cross country coach Sam Bell, who died last year at 88.

When I interviewed Doc for my story, we met in the stands at Memorial Stadium in April as he eyed the football team going through spring practice. It was an overcast, drizzly day. Doc sat leaning on his cane, clad in a plaid wool jacket and dispensing wisdom earned over a lifetime of challenges and successes.

Doc again actively entered my life in 2001, when I returned to Bloomington to attend grad school, an experience that including being a student and TA in both the School of Journalism and the African-American Studies department, the latter of which brought me close to Doc once again as a mentor and advisor. During my second year of grad school, I even served as a teaching assistant for the very same class that launched my passion — Sports and the Afro-American Experience under Doc’s watchful eye and tutelage. I remember conducting a discussion section about the importance and impact of Curt Flood’s fight for free agency.

In addition, I wrote two magazine articles for which I interviewed Doc Wiggins, one about the NCAA and the other about the Milan Miracle, the season that served as the basis for the movie, “Hoosiers.” (My article argued that the movie carried subtle racial undertones and overshadowed the more important 1955 Indiana high school champion team, all-black Crispus Attucks High School, feature a young Oscar Robertson. Actually, harkening back to Doc Wiggins, I read the book, “But They Can’t Beat Us,” by Randy Roberts for his class.)

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The Big O

Over my four years of grad school, Doc and I became close friends, and his sage advice and insightful wisdom guided me through my own life challenges. And, through it all, Doc never changed … his bald head fringed by crops of graying hair, eye glasses shifting from his nose to the hands, his eyes closing when deep in thought and conversion, his sly chuckles when making a point, his lumbering gait, his dry wit, his vast storehouse of knowledge … He also had a hip replacement while I was on campus, which made him more mobile and put a spark in his step as he approached 70.

When I had mostly completed my master’s degree coursework, my neighbors and family threw a graduation party and picnic for me, and, naturally, Doc attended, and he was ebullient and proud of my accomplishments and determination. As a graduation gift, he gave me a copy of Toni Morrison‘s, “Love,” a novel that’s still on my bookshelf today.

That party in May 2005 would be the final time I saw Dr. William Hawthorne Wiggins. Since finishing my master’s I’ve regretfully only returned to Bloomington once, and I sadly failed to keep in adequate touch with Doc over the years. I was lazy and self-absorbed, and I know regret and rue my apathy and inertia.

Late last year, another figure who proved vital to my development as a writer and critical thinker, John McCluskey (from whom I took a grad level class about literature in the Harlem Renaissance), emailed me to tell me that Doc wasn’t doing well health wise, a slow decline now accelerating as 2016 came to a close. He urged me to call Doc’s family, but with the holidays coming up, I shamefully neglected to do so.

Doc Wiggins died on Dec. 24, 2016, at the age of 82.

Tributes to the Indiana University fixture immediately poured forth, including comments posted to his obituary on Legacy.com. One former teaching assistant of his opined:

“I am saddened beyond belief by the loss of ‘Doc,’ who took me in as part of the flock he watched over when I moved to Bloomington. I remember his fondness for all things IU, especially the basketball team. I was one of his teaching assistants for his Intro to African American studies course one year, and I learned lessons that I carry with me today, almost 20 years later. The IU and Bloomington communities have lost one of its great ambassadors and the world is a little darker …”

Penned a fellow faculty member:

“Bill was a truly wonderful individual who always brought a smile from those around him. He made an enormous difference in the lives of so many students, staff and fellow faculty at IUB. He was a big man with a big and open soul. I will miss his smile and warmth, but will keep his spirit always.”

Several students also brought forth and verbalized their sadness. One wrote that Doc “made a huge impact in my student life at IU and continued to be a source for advice and inspiration even after my years at IU. No matter what you may have been going through he was always there for encouragement and had a joke to go along with it to make you smile.”

Another student stated that Doc “encouraged me beyond belief, one of my favorite professors at Indiana University. My deepest sympathies to his family,” while another said with bittersweet fondness:

Yet another pupil said:

“Dr. Wiggins will be deeply missed. He made a huge impact in my student life at IU and continued to be a source for advice and inspiration even after my years at IU. No matter what you may have been going through, he was always there for encouragement and had a joke to go along with it to make you smile. My prayers and support are extended to [his wife] and the family.”

Possibly the most eloquent, heartfelt elegy came from Dr. Fernando Orejuela, a faculty peer in Indiana’s Department of Folklore (Doc was an adjunct professor in folklore, possessing his PhD in that subject), who highlighted Doc’s impact on minority students and staff and on the IUB administration, which often followed Doc’s lead in making IU a more welcoming place for black and other students:

“For many of us who partnered with him as students, he was more than a great teacher. He was a very necessary mentor, and his mere presence and gentle-but-enormously-firm demeanor was all we needed to get straight and keep our eyes on the prize. During the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s and at a time when Bloomington was very unwelcoming of Black students on campus, Bill brought his wife Janice and daughter Mary Ellyn to IU to complete his study of African-American folklore and folklife.

“Together, he and Janice vigilantly made Bloomington a good place for minority students to come study and live — often asking us protesting, minority students if there were any place in the United States that was free of racism. There was none. It was and is our duty to continue to make IU and Bloomington better for the next generation. Esteemed Professor William Wiggins Jr., professor of African American and African diaspora studies and professor of folklore, you will be deeply missed. Peace.”

After Doc’s passing, the Indiana Daily Student published an article marking his death and celebrating his incredible impact on those around him, his family, friends, peers and students. The story featured a comment from Professor McCluskey:

“He was a loyal friend, loyal colleague and loyal citizen. He was always finding the good in his students, the good in his colleagues and the good in his community.”

Doc Wiggins’ death hit me extremely hard. Not only did I experience the loss of one of my most beloved and influential mentors — and the man who introduced me to the glorious world of the Negro Leagues — but it came within days of the death of my grandmother as well.

His passing left a hole in my heart, especially because I neglected to make contact with him before it happened and thank him for what he had done for me — his encouragement and, more importantly, his faith in me as a scholar, a teacher and a human being. That will forever be one of my biggest regrets in life.

But with this commentary, I try to make up for that mistake, but bidding a tearful sullen farewell to my mentor and friend.

Goodbye, Doc, and Godspeed. Thank you.

Yeah, you can call it a comeback

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John Donaldson (courtesy Pete Gorton and The Donaldson Network)

Last night I dreamed that I was at a future edition of the Jerry Malloy Negro League conference. It wasn’t held at a hotel or convention center, but more like a church Sunday school room or a library conference room. It was maybe a dozen people, and we brought folding metal chairs into the room and clustered around the presenter while he or she discussed their topic.

In addition to we Malloy regulars, there were also of my high school friends, including my best pal as a kid, Steve, a lifelong Yankees fan. I remember in my nocturnal vision that we were a little disappointed in the turnout at this dream-state Malloy conference, and we were concerned that support for the Negro Leagues and their heritage were fading from people’s memory and losing modern relevance.

But while we were sullen and somewhat glum about the attendance, we were also charged up to hear the presenters and absorb the research and cool nuggets of discovery they’d unearthed over the previous year. We knew that, even though it seemed like enthusiasm for our shared American antiquity was waning, there was still boundless and rich baseball knowledge still out there, waiting to be discovered, savored and shared.

Then I woke up this morning, checked my email and learned that legendary — and legendarily underappreciated — blackball pitcher John Donaldson had been elected to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, thanks to the persistence and optimism of The Donaldson Network, led by the unflaggingly dedicated Pete Gorton.

Upon reading Pete’s email announcement, the disquiet that my dream had caused was allayed with the balm of the Donaldson news, which instantly buoyed my spirit and revitalized my own flagging spirit, which had more or less crashed last fall after the onset of severe burnout.

For more than four years, I’d worked feverishly to write hundreds of articles and blog posts about the Negro Leagues and baseball history — done out of plain and simple love for the subject a passion to spread the good news about the Negro Leagues — and after sadly crashing and burning at the 2016 Malloy conference in Kansas City, I decided to take a big step back from my research and writing, which reluctantly included putting Home Plate Don’t Move into hiatus.

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John Donaldson (courtesy The Donaldson Network and Pete Gorton)

The decision triggered in me both relief and a sorrow. I knew I needed a break, but I also felt like I was letting down my friends, my colleagues and myself, and in many ways it made for a long, dour winter in which I recharged but also fretted that I was permanently losing my love for research and writing. It was undeniably an existential crisis — maybe even a midlife one, because, after all, I turned 44 this month — and it threatened to derail me for much longer than I ever wanted or intended.

But then … things started to turn around, little by little. I started to read more, to do a little poking around through online databases, talking a bit again with my peers and pals, and I gradually realized that it might be time to get back in the game, so to speak. I steadily realized that not only was researching, writing about and sharing the deep, vibrant history of blackball, but also that I needed to give myself a swift kick in the pants in order to jolt me back into action.

There’s another sign (besides my dream) from today that it’s time to dive back into business — earlier today, The Sporting News posted an article by Graham Womack to the magazine’s Web site titled, “Baseball Hall of Fame could do more for Negro Leaguers.”

The timing of the story is a bit puzzling, because the 2017 National Baseball Hall of Fame election results were announced several weeks ago, while this year’s induction ceremony isn’t until late July, but when it comes to advocacy for the Negro Leagues, we’ll certainly take whatever we can get.

TSN’s article recaps how the NBHOF revised its selection process recently to once again open the door to Negro Leaguers after a 10-year hiatus during which Hall officials steadfastly refused to consider allowing blackball figures following a huge induction class in 2006. (The newly revised rules also allow for the selection of other neglected subgroups of players, coaches and execs.) Granted, the revised rules allow for what seems to be just a trickle of additional Negro Leaguers over an extended period of time, but, again, we’ll obviously take what we can get.

Womack’s commentary also names 10 pre-1950 African-American hardballers who most deserve consideration for under the new guidelines — Buck O’Neil, Gus Greenlee, Donaldson, Bud Fowler, Spot Poles, Home Run Johnson, Newt Allen, Bingo DeMoss, Dick Lundy and Double Duty Radcliffe. Let the debate commence on who was left out of that admittedly solid list (Rap Dixon, Cannonball Redding, Bruce Petway, Oliver Marcell …)

Here’s an excerpt from Womack’s article:

“With Black History Month wrapping up Tuesday, here’s a plea to the Hall of Fame: Reconsider the policy toward Negro Leaguers. Negro Leaguers have not been honored in Cooperstown at anywhere close to the same level as white players and anyone who’s played in the majors since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier 1947. A number of outstanding Negro League players and executives remain outside Cooperstown. They deserve more than one or two inductions — at best — per decade.

So, I s’pose, I’m back, and so is Home Plate Don’t Move. However, at least temporarily, this blog will take a bit of a different form; instead of hardcore, intensive, detailed, third-person historical narratives and articles, I’m going to do more first-person work that discusses the efforts to keep Negro Leagues heritage alive and how those efforts, both on my part and on others’, have and continue to energize, enthrall and drive me.

HPDM will hopefully be more emotional, more visceral and more cathartic, a venture that lays bare my own soul — and how the souls of countless blackball figures continue to speak to and influence me, and to influence and motivate others like me.

It’ll be about the far reaching but still close knit Negro Leagues community of which I’m so proud and grateful to be a small part. We are all indeed quite lucky to have found this history, and to have found each other.

So, having said that, over the next couple weeks I’ll try to discuss the stuff I’ve been doing to keep the flame alive and the spirit fired, like looking for graves, reaching out to those with influence, and attempting to bring much deserved attention to and appreciation of the Negro Leagues, especially here in Louisiana and the Deep South.

And, as usual, feel free to post comments or email me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com! Thank you very, very much for sticking with me all these months, and may all of us continue to be inspired to do what we were born to do.

I’ll sign off with a intricate, challenging thought from one of the most important African-American sports advocates of the last 100 years, Dr. Harry Edwards. Dr. Edwards, a former track star who first sprang to national prominence in the late 1960s when, as a visiting professor at San Jose State, he co-founded the United Black Students for Action.

The USBA morphed into the groundbreaking Olympic Project for Human Rights, an effort that culminated at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised gloved fists while on the medal podium.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Edwards wrote the seminal tome, “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” and along the way he became close friends and fellow activists with Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and others.

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Dr. Harry Edwards

Since then, Dr. Edwards has continued and deepened his education, his writing and his activism, all of which has made an indelible impact on modern sports theory and thought. Most recently, Edwards, now a professor emeritus at UC-Berkeley, defended and contextualized NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s controversial decision to remain seated for pre-game National Anthem performances.

I learned about Dr. Edwards while taking Dr. William Wiggins’ class, “Sports and the African-American Experience,” while an undergrad at Indiana University in the early 1990s. (Doc Wiggins, one of my biggest influences and supporters during my career, sadly passed away in December, a crushing development that I’ll discuss in a later post.)

I subsequently read Dr. Edwards’ revolt, and while in grad school at IU, I conducted an email interview with him about racial favoritism within newspaper coverage of star baseball players. I hope to perhaps one day speak with Dr. Edwards again.

Anyway, here’s a couple paragraph from Edwards’ essay/study, “Sport within the Veil: The Triumphs, Tragedies and Challenges of Afro-American Involvement,” which appeared in the September 1979 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. As you read it, ponder its meaning and how it can apply to the study and promotion of blackball history, and what we as Negro Leagues advocates can do on that front.

Perhaps also examine how Edwards’ words and propositions fit into the context of the volatility of the unsettling current state America’s sociopolitical reality, i.e. the age of Trump:

“The historical pattern of black-white relations in America remains unchanged: blacks have always been the last hired, the lowest paid, and the first fired during times of general economic crisis. The black athlete, too, was the last to gain access to major sports, has always been the least rewarded to comparably talented whites and, it seems, will be the first eliminated at both the professional and collegiate levels as America’s economic problems deepen.

“It would appear, then, that not only the past history and contemporary circumstances, but the future prospects of the black athletes and the black masses are inextricably intertwined and interdependent. From this undeniable fact, there is no escape for either — by way of sport or any other route. It follows, therefore, that all concerned have a principle responsibility: first, to understand that Afro-America’s involvement with sport is no game, then to act accordingly.”

Sadly taking a break

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Hi all, it’s with very heavy heart that I temporarily put Home Plate Don’t Move on indefinite hiatus. In many ways I feel very disheartened doing this, but the last six months have been very, very difficult on a personal level. I’ve had some family challenges and bad news about friends.

Also, a couple weeks ago I learned that my landlord sold the house in which I live, and the new owner is being a schmeckel and booting everyone out. We were given a deadline of Nov. 18, so I’ve been scrambling to line up new accommodations.

But perhaps the most pertinent factor is the most painful. Over the past five years, I’ve written upwards of 100 articles about baseball history and the Negro Leagues, and produced more than 350 blog posts over the last two-plus or so years.

As a result, I’ve become majorly burned and and exhausted, a fact that became brutally evident at the Malloy conference in July, when I had a very difficult time health-wise. I simply collapsed, and I still feel horrible about it.

As a result of all these factors, I need a major break from scouring databases, going through archives, and tracking down people to interview. I need to put my health first right now. I feel very badly and guilty, but I also know I need to do it.

For the time being, I’ve decided to shift my focus, at least for a while, to covering current (and maybe a dab of historical) minor league news. I’m also going to attempt to get a small part-time for a little extra scratch, as well as — hopefully — working on a longer project about, well, me, my health challenges and my ancestry. Finally, I plan to apply for fall 2017 enrollment in the University of New Orleans Creative Writing MFA program. If I’m accepted, it doesn’t mean I’ll enroll, but I’m intrigued by the option.

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I also have some personal goals in addition to getting healthy, especially — finally! — getting married to my betrothed Lori and becoming a step dad. I also want to look into volunteering for a thing or two (a local animal shelter needs Cat Cuddlers). I’m hoping that giving back somehow will help me feel better about myself, something that, after 20-plus years, I want to at last accomplish.

So there it is. I want to deeply thank everyone who has followed and/or read my blog over the last three years — I am extremely grateful for and humbled by it. Thanks also to every single person who aided me along the way, whether it was providing tips, passing along documents or photos, being patient and gracious enough to be interviewed.

I will hopefully be back — the Negro Leagues and baseball history will always, always be my passion — and I’ll try to keep with the current blackball news, blogs and Facebook pages.

Again, many apologies for doing this, but sincere thanks to everyone who helped and/or read along the way! Good luck, Godspeed and keep the faith! Just remember what the great Buck Leonard said:

“We in the Negro leagues felt like we were contributing something to baseball, too, when we were playing. We played with a round ball, and we played with a round bat. And we wore baseball uniforms, and we thought that we were making a contribution to baseball. We loved the game, and we liked to play it.”

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Leon Day’s 100th … In your words

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Logo courtesy of award-winning graphic artist and baseball historian Gary Cieradkowski

Editor’s note: On Oct. 30, Hall of Fame pitcher Leon Day would have been 100 years old, and I wanted to commemorate the landmark day in this blog somehow. I thought about what I could write or say, but then I decided to let you, my readers and the Negro Leagues community, to say it with your words, thoughts, feelings and memories.

Helping me was Michelle Freeman, who’s done a yeoman’s job with the Leon Day Foundation in Baltimore, which has striven to honor Day’s memory and promote his achievements and impact on the national pastime, including a series of upcoming events to mark Day’s centennial birthday.

So many thanks to Michelle and to everyone who contributed comments for this blog post. Without further ado, let’s get to honoring Leon! …

Mariposa de Canarsie:

Well, I heard of Leon Day as a fan of the Newark Bears, who had is name on the stadium’s Wall of Honor, but really did not know about his career with the team until meeting you, Michelle. So what he means to me is that through his legacy, we forged a friendship. And through the Jerry Malloy conference I became friends with Ryan, Rod, Leslie, Susan, Ted, Belinda, Larry and Jay. I have developed a deep appreciation for this league, especially the teams that played in New Jersey and New York.

Richard Berg:

Tod Bolton and I used to go to Leon’s house every year when the [Hall of Fame] Veterans Committee would meet. Monte Irvin, who was on the committee, was the driving force for Leon’s enshrinement. He would tell me he would call after the meeting to let us know of the committee’s decision. In 1994, [Day] didn’t make it, as we know, and I said to Leon, “You know they are just waiting for you to die,” and Leon said, “I’m going to stay alive just to piss them off.”

I loved Leon as he was a man with a great, dry sense of humor with the scratchiest voice. Another memory was when Leon was appearing at a card show with Joe DiMaggio and they took a picture together. Joe was asked in front of Leon if he ever faced Leon, and he said no, and Leon said he’s lucky he didn’t. I miss the man.

Ted Knorr:

If I knew then what I know now …

In the early ’90s, I attended a gathering of former Negro League greats at the Pratt Library in Baltimore. Among those scheduled to appear was the great righthander Leon Day. Realizing that my friend, Steelton’s Paul Dixon, and Leon had been teammates on several teams in the ’30s, I made a mental note to discuss Paul with Leon.

Upon meeting, Leon could not have been more warm, friendly and open. In my scarce few minutes with the great pitcher, we discussed Paul, and he shared some adventures that they had had, and he gave me his phone number to pass along to my friend Paul.

Sadly, we did not discuss Rap Dixon, Paul’s older brother, much at all, although Leon did tell me that he never saw Rap play in his prime, and he added, almost as an afterthought, that Rap Dixon had been his first manager. Leon signed a baseball that already included Hall of Famers Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin, and a dozen others. We parted and went about participating in the wonderful event.

A few years later, my autographed baseball added a third Hall of Famer when on March 8, 1995, Leon Day received the call from the Hall informing and congratulating him upon his election. Sadly, Leon passed just a few days later and never made it to Cooperstown for his induction later that summer.

Years later, I received an answer to my unspoken question. In the intervening years and up to the present day, I remain convinced that Rap Dixon, my friend Paul’s brother, belongs alongside Leon Day in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I had always wondered what Leon really thought of Rap Dixon as a player. In 2001, William F. McNeil published a book entitled “Cool Papas & Double Duties: The All-Time Greats of the Negro Leagues,” in which he surveyed many former Negro League players about who they would select as an all-time starting nine. To my extreme pleasure, I found Leon Day was one of the players surveyed. I immediately went to Leon’s page and found he named the following players to his all-time lineup … the ninth player, in position No. 9, the right fielder, was, to my utter joy, Rap Dixon. In his all-time nine, [Leon] had named eight Hall of Famers (only five of which were so honored at the time) and Rap Dixon.

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Photo courtesy James Tate

James Tate:

I met Mr. Day at the 1990 players’ reunion in Baltimore. He was a delightful man to speak with. I asked him about the ball players he enjoyed watching when he was kid, and it was through him that I first learned of players like Jud Wilson, Oliver Marcell, Rap Dixon, Pete Hill and Laymon Yokely and the Baltimore Black Sox. I knew I had to learn more about these players and this great team that he spoke so highly of! He signed a hat and some cards for me. After he made the Hall, his wife Geraldine added “HOF 95” to the hat for me at another Negro League event. I cherish it and still have it and wear it on a few occasions.

Guy Mitchell:

When you think of Leon Day, you think of the word COMPLETE. In today’s game, you have great pitchers, but perhaps they aren’t great fielders. You hear of pitchers who field their position well. Some today can even hit. With Leon Day, you think of being great everywhere! He could pitch (boy, could he pitch), he could hit, he could run. He played the infield, and he played the outfield! Who could do that today?

Will Clark:

One word: Stud. He could do it all.

Leslie Heaphy:

I was inspired by his spirit to want to continue to tell the stories of these incredible people.

I think Leslie’s brief but powerful comment is a good way to summarize and conclude this post about one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. Again, many thanks to everyone who contributed something, and if anyone else wants to add their thoughts or comments, add them below, or email me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

And, of course, Happy Birthday, Leon!

Weldy Walker: Honored at last

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The new headstone at the grave of Weldy Walker. (All photos courtesy the Moses Fleetwood Walker Day Facebook page

Editor’s note: Because I’m a little swamped now with attending to matters outside of my work, research and writing, I decided to solicit guest commentaries, posts and comments from outside contributors on subjects with a recent news peg or angle. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has volunteered and agreed so far, and if anyone else has something timely they like to pitch, definitely shoot me an email at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

This post marks the first installment of that effort. It’s a commentary from SABR member Craig Brown, who toiled with the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project to raise money for, create and place a headstone at the previously unmarked grave of Weldy Walker, the second openly African American to play in the Majors, following is brother, Moses Fleetwood Walker. The efforts of Craig and others came to fruition last month, when a beautiful new marker was installed at Weldy’s burial spot. Below is a commentary written by Craig to mark the occasion. Enjoy, and congrats to Craig and his helpers on their success!

Welday Walker: The 2nd African American in MLB

By Craig Brown

The harsh reality is that no one remembers who came in second place. Whether it is fair or not, that is the truth. Who is the Olympic athlete with the most silver medals? Who was the second man to lead a ship to the New World? Well, that was Christopher Columbus. We only know that because so many people believe he was first. The second African American to play Major League Baseball was Welday (Weldy) Walker, and nobody remembers him.

It is disappointing nobody talks about the people who came in second place. After all, they worked hard and accomplished great things in their own right. Maybe it is because people only have so much room in their head, and they just want to save space for only the most “Important” of things.

Welday Walker was “second” throughout his life. He was the second son of Moses W. Walker and Caroline O’Harra Walker. He was the second Walker boy to attend Oberlin College and play baseball. He followed his older brother, Moses Fleetwood Walker, to the University of Michigan. He later became the second African American to play Major League baseball on July 15, 1884 as a Toledo Blue Stocking. Of course, this is after his older brother debuted as the first African American to play Major League Baseball on May 1, 1884. Walker was used to doing things after his brother. We can only imagine the intensity of this sibling rivalry.

Still, there is a very good reason that Welday should be remembered in his own right. Being one of only two African Americans to openly play Major League Baseball as almost 80 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier is a pretty big deal. The very presence of the Walker Brothers in Major League Baseball actually created the color barrier. Both of these men were pioneers and deserve credit for showing the world that African Americans were capable and in every way equal to white Americans. They were testaments against the prevailing view of Social Darwinism.

Both Walker Brothers are historic figures. They are both important pages in the book of baseball history and were both civil rights pioneers. It is in the latter respect where Welday separates himself from his older and more recognized brother.

Shortly after the Civil War and in an environment rife with racial tension, Welday and a friend won an anti-discrimination lawsuit. In 1884, Welday and Hannibal Lyons were denied admission to a skating rink in Steubenville, Ohio, because they were black. They sued. They were portrayed in the media as troublemakers, but the judge issued a favorable ruling. Each plaintiff was awarded $15, but as indicative of the times, they were still not allowed to enter the rink.

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By the end of 1884, the unofficial ban on blacks in baseball would keep the Walker Brothers and other talented African Americans out of Major League Baseball, but for a few years, the Walkers and others would play in “minor” leagues.” Of course, eventually racism would end their playing days on that level too.

In 1887, Welday was playing for the Akron Acorns. That year Welday learned that racial segregation was becoming the norm in minor leagues and he learned his days playing on an integrated baseball field were coming to an end.

This prompted Welday to commit his most memorable act. He penned a letter to the president of the Tri-State League objecting to this policy based on racial discrimination and ignorance. He argued, “There should be some broader case – such as want of ability, behavior, and intelligence — for barring a player than his color.” Two years earlier, while playing for the Cleveland Forest Cities, Welday batted .375. His ability was never the issue.

Ten years after Welday’s short time with the Acorns, a black man was lynched by the citizens of Urbana, Ohio. Welday was outraged by the lack of action by state government. He blamed Gov. Asa Bushnell for a shoddy investigation, and formally left the Republican Party. He then helped form the Negro Protective Party.

Both Moses Fleetwood Walker and Welday Walker were interred in unmarked graves in Steubenville’s Union Cemetery. In 1998 Oberlin College’s Heisman Club erected a tombstone at Moses’ grave. The act made headlines and once again revived the memory of Moses Fleetwood Walker as what he accomplished as the first openly African-American player in Major League Baseball.

A couple of months ago enough money was raised in connection with the Society for American Baseball Research to buy Welday Walker a headstone. We hope to plan a ceremony in the spring. It is our hope that people will begin to talk about the African-American man who was second to play Major League Baseball. We also hope that this act will lead to a broader discussion about Welday’s life as a vocal opponent against discrimination and as an early civil rights pioneer in his own right.

Plunging into the bureaucracy

Dear Mr. Dixon and Mir. Scott,

My name is Ryan Whirty. I’m a local freelance journalist, researcher and historian who is working on a project to locate and hopefully place grave markers on the graves of two former segregation-era African-American baseball players, one of which is buried in Holt Cemetery and the other in Carrollton Cemetery.

I was wondering if I could speak with you regarding my project, as well as the budget for the cemeteries line item, the process for upkeep and improvement, and the possibility of gathering a group of local volunteers to work on these players’ graves.

I am quite disheartened by the deplorable condition in which these cemeteries stand and the apparent lack of concern for the final resting places of thousands of deceased city residents.

I would like to move forward with giving these two local baseball legends the dignity in death they have so far been denied. Ideally, I would like the city’s help or advice for this project, but if not, I will move forward on my own to provide a service that no one else, including city officials, cares to provide.

Below are a couple blog posts I’ve written about this situation. Thank you very much, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Ryan

The City of New Orleans owns seven cemeteries within its limits – Carrollton No. 1, Carrollton No. 2, Holt, Indigent, Valence, Lafayette No. 1 and Lafayette No. 2 – which are scattered throughout the city, cover a total of XXXXXX acres, and include roughly XXXXXXX interments total. (Those ugly XXXXXXXs are meant to be in there — I’m currently trying to find out the info because it might further illuminate the situation. I have a couple other queries out there, too.)

In 2014, the city spent nearly $770,000 on those four cemeteries for upkeep and current burials. However, a year later, funding for the cemeteries plummeted to just $170,500, a massive 79-percent drop.

This year’s city budget allots a little bit more than in 2015 – about $126,000 – but that’s still only roughly $XXX per grave. According to the city’s 2016 budget book, New Orleans’ public cemeteries have just one full-time employee to care for them, a position simply tabbed a “laborer.” Note, however, that below, I post an email from a staffer at Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office that offers slightly different numbers. But I’ll get to that.

The cemeteries line in the budget falls under the Department of Property Management, whose total budget allotment for 2016 stands at just more than $9 million, which means the cemeteries paltry funding level of about $126,000 takes up just 1.4 percent of the DPM budget for 2016. Compared to the entire city budget of just over $1 billion, the care given to the city’s four cemeteries is a drop in Lake Pontchartrain.

Why is that? That’s quite a good question, one for which I’ve been trying to find an adequate answer. (More on that a bit further down.) But it might have something to do with the fact that much of the ground included in the quartet of cemeteries comprises potter’s fields, or sections reserved for the city’s poor and indigent – people who have no financial means to afford a proper burial, and neither do their families.

The result is that the dead are crammed into small family plots in graves that hold multiple relatives and are literally bumping up against each other. Very few decorations adorn the graves, and many of the stone markers are so old an unattended that the writing has either faded or been completely obscured by dirt, mold or other icky stuff. In fact, mud is a common surrounding for these forgotten people.

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John Bissant

However, that’s a best case scenario. In many potter’s fields, the recently deceased are, for all intents and purposes, basically dumped into the ground anywhere there’s a spot. No records are kept, no burial stones or markers are placed, no diagrams or plot maps are drawn up, and virtually no maintenance is done. Grass can be knee high, and vegetation is frequently so wild and unkempt that it’s hard to even tell whether you’re in a cemetery or in an open, grassy meadow.

These are the famed, Gothic “Cities of the Dead” – New Orleans’ many cemeteries that feature rows and rows and acres and acres or ornate, majestic stone mausoleums, somber obelisks and statues of the Virgin Mary.

No, populating Holt, Carrollton, Indigent and the other city-owned cemeteries are often the final remains of invisible men and women in society, people who, for the city’s more well off, just don’t matter. Well, beyond mowing the lawns, building the houses and serving the steaks to New Orleans’ upper classes, I mean.

So why are the public burial grounds virtually ignored? Because, well, no one gives a damn about the lost generations buried there.

It also shouldn’t be surprising that the majority of these anonymous graves and stark, weeded plots hold the remains of the city’s African-American population. From the days of slavery, through Reconstruction, into Jim Crow and even through the Civil Rights era and ending today, the families of possibly millions of poor blacks had to see their loved ones lowered into ragtag graves dug by workers – most, of course, black themselves – hired (or not paid at all) by the city or its antecedent municipalities to do several such tasks every day. And that’s assuming the newly dead even had any family at all to care enough – or to have the means or wherewithal or ability – to attend the cursory burial rites.

Thus, perhaps, the fates of NOLA Negro Leaguers John Bissant and Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport, both of whom appear to have ended up like their African-American peers, family, friends and compatriots in New Orleans – hidden and ignored in unmarked graves.

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Ducky Davenport

And, just like the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project does nationally and just how a small group of us here in NOLA and Texas worked to buy and install a grave marker for legendary local Negro Leagues manager Wesley Barrow, I want to see what we can do to rectify the tragedies of these two players’ hopeless post-mortem fates.

Davenport is interred in Holt Cemetery, a situation I tried to investigate last year. Unfortunately, while I spent a good deal of time and resources on the effort, I was unfortunately unable to speak to a living descendant. I visited Holt Cemetery to scope out the facility, but I was instantly dismayed by the apparent impossibility of the needle-in-a-haystack task.

Then there’s Bissant, whose final resting place is in Carrollton Cemetery, only a few blocks from Tulane University. Because of Carrollton’s proximity to the university – which offers several phenomenal historical research resources like the Amistad Research Center and the Louisiana Research Collection – lately I’ve focused on Bissant’s grave. The process has been somewhat more productive than my inquiry into Davenport’s interment, but it’s still been trying and tedious.

I’ve kind of figured out a four-pronged approach to this: One, hit the books, files and databases to do research into the players’ lives and families to try to find a living descendant who could help; two, try to gather together some local friends who would be interested in helping me with this; three, attempting to get the attention of the local media (which is quite difficult during Saints and LSU season); and four, delving into the illustrious, arcane nooks and crannies of the City of New Orleans government bureaucracy.

This post, as signaled by the previous paragraphs here, is about my recent inquiries into local officials and civic employees. So let’s go the governmental way …

First off, here’s what the 2016 city budget (referenced above) says about the administration of the civic cemeteries:

“Facilities Maintenance: The Facilities Administration operates public facilities for charge, which provides space for meetings, celebrations, the performing arts, services for the elderly/indigent, and burial of the dead. The aspect of fee and rent collection differentiates this program from Facilities Maintenance. However, the activities are based on the City Charter, and include repair and maintenance. Unit Names: Multi-service Centers, Real Estate and Records, Gallier Hall, Cemeteries, and Cultural Center.”

That paragraph appears to state that the city, through its Department of Property Management, does indeed charge residents for the burial of the recently passed in the four cemeteries. While they’re public property, they ain’t free.

At this point, I should allude to the fact that in a prior journalism life, I was an investigative reporter for several newspapers, both daily and weekly. I wrote extensively about local governments and companies and all the business (both clean and filthy) that took place amongst and within them.

But I dumped that stuff after becoming thoroughly burned out on and fed up with all the nastiness, grime and duplicity I encountered and wrote about while doing that, and I eventually fled to and settled in historical journalism, particularly baseball and Negro Leagues history.

And, yep, I’m quite content, thank you. Good riddance to ickiness. Alas, like a former two-pack-a-day smoker who occasionally feels the overwhelming itch for a breath or two of nicotine, every once in a while I do miss all that government and politics stuff, and I long – very infrequently – to get back into it.

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A grave in the Bissant family plot

This subject right here – the dilapidated state of the graves of many of New Orleans’ Negro Leagues heroes – is a subject that more than satisfies that craving. Hence this post, and all the others like it that I have already written and (hopefully) will write.

I started this in earnest last month, when I visited what I believe is the final resting place of John Bissant. I then called the office of New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, whose district includes Carrollton Cemetery. I spoke with a very friendly, seemingly enthusiastic staff aide, who encouraged me to send a detailed email regarding my interests and inquiries.

Which I did. Three weeks ago.

Then I followed up with another email a week later.

Then last week I followed up with a call, another email and another call.

Wasn’t able to reach anyone or get anyone to call me back.

So last week I decided to widen my net and contact other city departments. One result was the email letter I copied at the beginning of this post. I sent it to the Department of Property Management Facilities Maintenance Administrator John Scott and DPM Facilities Administrator Ronald Dixon.

I haven’t heard back from them yet, although that’s somewhat understandable, because mid-level bureaucrats in a byzantine municipal administration frequently aren’t allowed to talk to the media without “permission,” or they just ignore the squeaky wheel and hope it stops on its own.

But the Mayor’s Office … they CAN respond to me. So I emailed a similar letter to Landrieu’s office, and his press secretary, C. Hayne Rainey, wrote me back yesterday, which was a pleasant surprised. Here’s Rainey’s message, with slightly different numbers than I found in this year’s city budget:

“This year, the City budgeted $100,000 to maintain the City’s seven cemeteries (Holt, Valence, Lafayette #1 & #2, Carrollton #1 & #2 and Indigent cemeteries). Of those seven, two are considered indigent (Holt and Indigent) and the remaining five consist of privately owned graves. While the City maintains the grounds through grass cutting and debris removal, the City relies on families to maintain their individually owned lots.

“In 2013, the City performed capital improvements at the Carrollton and Holt cemeteries; including new fencing, new lighting and signage as well as new or renovated cottages at these sites and improved drainage.

“We were able to determine that Mr. Bissant was buried on April, 8. 2006 in Carrollton Cemetery in Lot 4539/ Section A. Unfortunately, many records were lost as a result of Hurricane Katrina and at this time, no records have been located identifying the exact location of Mr. Davenport’s burial in Holt Cemetery in 1985.”

Rainey’s email provides a slew of answers, although they might not be the encouraging ones I was praying for. I already knew Bissant’s burial information, but I’m extremely disheartened to learn that, thanks to Katrina, there’s probably no way we can ever find Ducky Davenport’s grave.

So for now, maybe I’ll try to focus on John Bissant’s grave, and Rainey’s letter contained a flicker of hope – although the graves in Carrollton are owned privately (and therefore not kept up by the city itself, per se – individual families, i.e. the owners of the plots, are allowed and, indeed, encouraged to perform maintenance.

So, well, all I need to do is find a living relative of John Bissant. No problem. Maybe no problem.

I’ll conclude with a short conversation I had a couple weeks ago with a staffer in the city’s cemeteries office. Despite being swamped with their own work, they took the time to answer some of my queries as well as they could. (I use the pronoun “they” because I don’t want to identify the gender and, as a result, reveal their identity.)

I asked them if members of the one family could be buried in the same grave, and they said it’s “definitely possible,” with newly passed family members being interred, on average, about once every three years.

They said it’s not uncommon to see family members tending to their loved ones’ graves in Carrollton, for example. “People gather for their own people,” they said.

But, I then asked, what about a person outside the family – like a member of the public or other interested volunteer – maybe stepping in to help, like I’d want to do with John Bissant and his kin?

“You can,” they said, “but you need permission from the family in writing.”

So, alas, we’re back to trying to track down a living family member of John Bissant. Sigh.

My next few posts about Bissant – which will hopefully come halfway soon – will zero in on that search, as well as hopefully highlighting Bissant’s baseball career here in NOLA, before and after he made the big time with the Chicago American Giants.