With Negro League baseball reeling from the effects of integrated professional baseball and years of disorganization, Wendell Smith and The Pittsburgh Courier set out to inject some life back into it.
A banner headline in the May 15, 1948, edition announced:
Courier Launches Talent Hunt
Smith did not spare the hyperbole in his explanation of the details:
“The Pittsburgh Courier introduces this week the greatest scouting system ever devised in the history of baseball…It stretches from coast-to-coast and every foreign country in which this great newspaper circulates.”
Smith said the paper would pay $100 to any reader who recommended a player “Who is assigned to a professional ballclub and makes the grade.”
He said the “(S)couting system—which is even greater than those conducted by the major league club,” sought players “not to exceed 21,” who “may be of any race or nationality.” The paper would then “conduct a thorough investigation of the candidate.”
That “thorough investigation” would be conducted by some of the biggest names in Negro League baseball recruited as “Official Scouts” to vet the candidates. They were Oscar Charleston, Ted Page, Dizzy Dismukes, Frank Duncan, Vic Harris, Winfield Welch, George Scales and Tex Burnett.
Smith said of the paper’s “Scouts;”
“They will see these boys pay and send in a report to The Courier sports department. If the scout’s report indicates the boy is a potential big leaguer, he will be immediately sent to a professional team for a trial.”
Smith promised every reader of the paper:
“(Y)ou automatically become an ‘ivory-hunter,’ a ‘bird dog,’ a real, honest-to-goodness baseball scout.”
The “Talent Hunt” had the enthusiastic support of Negro League magnates as well—despite having been the frequent targets of Smith’s and The Courier’s ire.
Effa Manley, Newark Eagles owner, said, “It will be a life saver for Negro baseball.”
Dr. John Johnson—an Episcopal minister in his second year as president of the Negro National League said, “(W)e are now going to discover more players than ever before.”
Negro American League President Dr. John B. Martin said, “It will help every team in baseball.”
Smith reminded readers:
“(Jackie Robinson) was recommended to Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, by The Pittsburgh Courier…Some pace there is another Robinson and The Courier and its many readers are determined to find him!”
The following week, Smith told readers:
“Letters are rolling in from New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. But the little towns are sending names of hopefuls too. Everybody wants to be a scout!”
At the end of May, The Courier announced another addition to the Official Scouts: Elmer C. “Pop” Turner. Nearly forgotten today, Turner was a football and baseball star at West Virginia State University—also Smith’s alma mater. He played for several Negro League teams in the late 20s and early 30s, became a Negro National League umpire in the late 30s and early 40s, and coached baseball and football at North Carolina College at Durham—now known as North Carolina Central University.
By June 5, Smith promised:
“Someone is going to be one hundred dollars richer, and some young ballplayer is going to be a thousand times happier by virtue of The Pittsburgh Courier’s new ‘Talent Hunt’ campaign… (It) is in full swing and letters are pouring in from all over the country.”
The following week, the paper said, under the headline:
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star…He’ll bring you $100!
“All you have to do is find a likely prospect (and) send his name and address and other information you wish to Wendell Smith…This ‘Talent Hunt’ program is designed to uncover the ‘Stars of Tomorrow.”
The article said they were scouting “more than 200 young players” recommended by readers.
After that June 12 article, there was never another word written about the “Talent Hunt.” Not by Wendell Smith, not by The Courier. The promotion, which could have provided much-needed publicity and enthusiasm for the moribund Negro Leagues, disappeared without a trace; without so much as a mention.
Smith spent the remainder of the 1948 season covering major league baseball; and The Courier’s coverage of the Negro Leagues was greatly reduced from previous seasons, and nonexistent some weeks.
The only passing reference Smith made to the “Talent Hunt” came almost four months after the abrupt disappearance of the promotion. It was in his column, under the headline:
Hard to Find Negro Baseball Talent
“Branch Rickey proved with Jackie Robinson that there’s gold in Negro players, and Bill Veeck of Cleveland substantiated that proof with Satchel Paige and Larry Doby…So major league scouts are scouring the country sides looking for Negro prospects, while the owners sit back and wait, envisioning record-breaking crowds in the future if their ‘bird dogs’ find a sepia star in the hinterlands.
But, said Smith:
“The scouts are out there snooping around like Scotland Yard detectives looking for talent, but having a difficult job uncovering it.”
Smith then listed several past Negro League players who should have had the opportunity to play in the major leagues, and said:
“Unfortunately, there aren’t such players around today. That’s why there won’t be a large number of Negro players in the majors for some time to come. They just can’t be found and were going to have to wait until the kids playing in the sandlots around the country develop.”
Smith’s pessimistic assessment of the state of “Negro baseball talent,” was likely the result of the paper’s failed promotion, as players continued to be scouted and signed without the help of the readers of The Courier.