In August of 1953, “Jet Magazine” said people were talking about:
“That affectionate hug baseball immortal Ty Cobb gave Chicago news dealer Fred Downer.”
By then, Frederick Douglas Downer was largely forgotten.
Before playing as a professional, he was, according to The Pittsburgh Courier, the “star” of the Morehouse College baseball team in Atlanta.
His first professional experience was with the Atlanta Cubs in 1919—the team was colloquially called the Atlanta Black Crackers for years, and newspapers referred to them by both names until 1922 when the “Cubs” name was permanently dropped. Years later, Downer told The Chicago Defender he also played with the Knoxville Giants during this period.
In 1921, Downer and Gerard Williams, his teammate at Morehouse and with the Atlanta Cubs, went north to join the Pittsburgh Keystones. Downer is listed by several sources as the club’s manager, but in the 1970s he told The Defender said he “played under the management of (William) Dizzy Dismukes.” Dismukes was also the Keystones’ manager the following year when the team entered the Negro National League.
Downer appears to have played independent and semi-pro ball during 1922.
While not listed on any extant rosters, Downer spent some time with the Cleveland Tate Stars in 1923—in an interview given in 1972 Elander “Vic” Harris, who debuted with the Tate Stars as an 18-year-old that season, said Downer, who he had gotten to know in Pittsburgh was with the club. Harris told The Van Nuys (CA) News he tried out as a first baseman but was installed in the outfield, leading to Downer being let go.
Downer returned to Pittsburgh and assumed management of the Keystones in 1924. After a single season in the Negro National League, the Keystones had dropped out, and the team continued operations as a semi-pro club.
Downer, and another Georgian who also played with the 1923 Cleveland Tate Stars, Mathis Williams, managed and played for the semi-pro version in 1924 and ’25. The Keystones barely treaded water financially.
In June of 1925 The Pittsburgh Courier said:
“Of the colored clubs in action, none but the Homestead Grays are making any money…Fred Downer and his Pittsburgh Keystones are practically a thing of the past.”
Within a month the team disbanded and Downer was through as a player.
The following year, he and his wife Marian Foster Downer, a reporter for The Pittsburgh Courier—and later The Chicago Defender— relocated to Chicago. She continued to write for The Courier’s society page while Fred began covering baseball and boxing for the paper and acted as The Courier’s Midwest circulation manager.
In addition to covering most major Midwest-based events–including the annual Negro League East-West All-Star Game and several championship fights—Downer started the Atlas News and Photo Service which distributed content to Black newspapers.
Downer with Negro American League President Dr. John D. Martin posing for a press photo announcing that Downer’s Atlas News and Photo Service would exclusively distribute photos from spring training in 1941.
Marian Foster Downer also wrote about sports for The Defender. Her article on the 1935 East-West All-Star Game—won by the West 11-8 on George “Mule” Suttles’ three-run home run after Webster McDonald walked Josh Gibson to face him—was headlined:
Our Girl Scribe Sees Mule’s Hit
Marian Foster Downer–The Defender’s “Girl Scribe”
In 1945, Fred Downer proposed a new path for Negro League baseball, writing in a Chicago-based magazine called “New Vistas:”
“If the white majors won’t hire good colored players, then the Negroes should build their own parks and hire the best players regardless of race. This will build up competition, and competition will break down many barriers.”
Downer was covering the World Series at Wrigley Field in 1932 and was on-hand for Babe Ruth’s “called shot.” The Courier’s Sports Editor Wendell Smith said Downer was “One of Babe’s most staunch and loyal supporters,” and was determined to find the ball.
“His decision to find the ball Ruth hit resulted in a search that has been a detailed and intensive as any by a ‘G-man.’ Fred scoured every baseball haunt in the Chicago area.”
According to Smith, Downer expanded his search throughout the Midwest, with no luck.
Downer later told The Chicago Defender he found the ball and bought it from a former Chicagoan who had moved to Michigan. He called the ball “one of his prized possessions.”
The actual provenance of the ball and its current whereabouts are unknown.
Twenty-one years after he witnessed Ruth’s “called shot,” Downer—by then he had left The Courier and owned three newsstands on Chicago’s South Side– was again at Wrigley Field where he had an encounter that raised questions in the Black press about a long-held opinion of another baseball legend.
Ty Cobb stopped in Chicago on his way back to his California home from Cooperstown, to attend a game between the Cubs and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Downer was born in Cobb’s hometown of Royston, Georgia in 1896. The Defender said of the relationship between the two:
“(Downer) got his start in baseball chasing fly balls for Ty Cobb as a kid.”
The California Eagle said:
“Downer was raised around the Cobb’s household in Royston, Georgia.”
Wendell Smith said of Cobb’s day at Wrigley:
“(T)here were two things said about (Cobb) that were, apparently, the gospel truth:
He could hit any living pitcher.
He would hit any living Negro.”
Smith said the second “truth” was “merely a matter of hearsay.”
And, he said:
“(H)e gives no indication today of intolerance.”
In addition to his embrace of Downer, Cobb was asked which players on the field most impressed him:
“’Why that catcher there, he said, pointing to Roy Campanella. ‘He’s the best ball player I’ve seen in many a year…That fella’s a great catcher,’ he volunteered. ‘The very best in the game. He reminds me a little of Roger Bresnahan. If he can stick around for five or six more years they’ll have to put him alongside the game’s all-time catchers.’”
Downer continued to operate his newsstands well into his 70s. At the corner of 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue, The Defender said, he would:
“(S)ell morning newspapers (and) answer hundreds of questions pertaining to his long career.”
Frederick Douglas Downer died in Chicago on March 10, 1986.