Tag Archives: Negro American League

“The Case of Mr. Pollock’s Clowns”

2 Jul

DeHart Hubbard was the first African American Olympic gold medal winner in an individual event—running long jump,1924—and owned the Cincinnati Tigers, who played as an independent team from 1934-36, and were members of the Negro American League in their final season, 1937.

deharthubbard

DeHart Hubbard

In 1944, Hart authored a plan to capitalize on black baseball’s, “opportunity of becoming firmly entrenched as an outstanding and progressive enterprise, reflecting credit in Negro people.”

Hubbard warned that promoters and “booking agencies” controlled Negro League baseball and said the owners held no power.

Wendell Smith, sports editor of The Pittsburgh Courier endorsed much of Hubbard’s plan which he said would relieve the Negro Leagues “of many of the Barnum and Bailey policies, with which we are all familiar.”

wendellsmith

Wendell Smith

Smith used Hubbard’s “logical and credible” suggestions to improve “solve many of the problems with Negro baseball,” to revisit his opposition to one team–under the headline: “The Case of Mr. Pollock’s Clowns,” Smith wrote:

“In line with Hubbard’s program for a clearer interpretation of the policies of Negro baseball, I submit the case of the Negro American League aggregation known to one and all and the ‘Clowns.’ This team is owned by Syd Pollock of Tarrytown, NY, a theater owner, who is reaping profits out of Negro baseball.”

Smith had previously—in 1942 and 1943 columns–referred to the Clowns as a “fourth rate Uncle Tom minstrel show,” and said, “I believe most Negroes resent the Clowns and their implication.”

As a result of Smith’s 1942 comments, Pollock sent The Courier what Smith called “a bristling letter,” calling Smith’s claims about the team were “founded in filth and untruths.” Pollock claimed in the letter that the club was still owned by Hunter Campbell, a black man who founded the team as the Miami Giants in 1935 and by most accounts had sold his interest to Pollock in 1939.

pollock

Syd Pollock

To this claim, Smith said, he was unable to “establish ownership” of the club, but that if Campbell still had an ownership stake:

“(T)he finger of scorn is all the more direct and penetrating.  As a Negro, Campbell should realize the danger in insisting that his ball players paint their faces and go through minstrel show reviews before each ball game.”

Smith also noted during the 1942-43 exchange that Pollock “Cancelled his subscription to The Courier.”

His opinion of Pollock and his team had not softened in 1944:

“Like many other white people, Mr. Pollock has a misconception of the value of Negro performers…(He) believes, apparently that the only way to make a success out of Negro baseball is to tack such an infamous name a “Clowns” onto his hired hands and send them around the country putting on showboat skits before ball games.”

Smith said he had spoken to Pollock frequently and considered him “a fine and well-meaning man,” but said:

“(Pollock) still seems to believe that the only way to make the ‘Clowns’ popular is to send them into a song and dance.

“Why he insists that this is the way to baseball success, I don’t know, because he certainly hasn’t been able to make any one city or community accept the team for any length of time.  Mr. Pollock has put his baseball circus in Miami and Cincinnati, but neither city accepted them.  Now he has moved his team to Indianapolis, where he hopes he’ll find more hospitality and finally a stationary home.”

Smith predicted that because “Mr. Pollock insists on having his ‘Clowns’ stress clowning on the baseball field, he won’t find a home,” and called on Negro American President Dr. John B. Martin, to explain to Pollock the, “broad and distinct difference between baseball and slap-stick comedy…The next thing we know, Mr. Pollock will have his ball club playing in a tent with an elephant doing the pitching.”

Smith kept up his criticism of Pollock later that summer when the Clowns’ owner was fined $250 by the league for his team walking off the field during a game in Memphis in June:

“It is gratifying to know that (President) Martin had the courage to give the arrogant Syd Pollock and his urchins a spanking.”

Smith took the attack on Pollock further:

“If there were such a thing as a baseball fascist, we’d expect to find Syd Pollock on the list, because he did more than any other person in the sports world to belittle the plight of Ethiopia while it was being raped by Italy.  My. Pollock carried on the ingenious idea of calling his club the ‘Ethiopian Clowns.’ He painted his players’ faces in diverse colors, made them go into a song and dance on the playing field, and in general was a party to what might be termed a ‘burlesque’ campaign that belittled the tragedy of Ethiopia.”

1936ethclowns

Ethiopian Clowns, 1936

Smith would continue to take shots at the Clowns and Pollock throughout the 40s while fighting for integration of organized baseball.  In 1945, he congratulated Detroit promoter John Williams, who refused to book the Clowns in Detroit because, “he vigorously objects to the ‘Uncle Tom’ shows they put on,” he also lauded outfielder Jack Marshall who had refused to re-sign with the team because of “the monkey-shines owner Syd Pollock requires of his players.”

Despite Smith’s efforts, which continued after integration and after he moved to The Chicago Herald-American—where he again referred to Pollock’s “Minstrel Show,” in the 1950s, the Clowns continued barnstorming long after Smith called for their demise, and for more than a decade after Smith’s death in 1972.

Wendell Smith’s “Talent Hunt”

6 May

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.

Wendell Smith

Wendell Smith

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.

Vic Harris with the 1930 Homestead Grays.

Vic Harris 

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.”

Effa Manley

Effa Manley

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!”

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

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.

“Its Existence is a Blot on the Statue of Liberty”

4 May

For two decades, Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier was at the forefront of the battle for the integration of professional baseball.  He called segregated baseball:

“(T)he great American tragedy!  Its existence is a blot on the Statue of Liberty, the American Flag, the Constitution, and all this great land stands for.”

Wendell Smith

Wendell Smith

For Smith, the “American tragedy” was exacerbated by the fact that he felt the players and fans were further harmed because while the quality of Negro League baseball on the field was of the same quality as that of their white brethren, the off-field operations were not.

In 1943, Smith said he hoped “(F)or the day when we can actually say there is such a thing as organized Negro baseball…Schedules are not respected, trades are made without the knowledge of the league officials, players are fined but the fines are seldom paid; and no one seems to know what players are ineligible and what players are eligible in the leagues.  It is a messy system.”

That same year, when Negro American President Dr. John B. Martin—a Memphis dentist who also owned the Chicago American Giants with his brother– said he was told by Kennesaw Mountain Landis that “Negro baseball will never get on a firm footing until a commissioner is appointed and a sound treasury built up.”

Smith responded:

“The sports scribes of the Negro press have been yelping to the high heavens for years for a real boss in Negro baseball.”

In 1946, when Baseball Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler told the Negro League magnates to “Get your house in order,” The Courier story—which contained no byline but was likely written by Smith—said Chandler had told “Negro baseball the same thing everybody else has been telling it for five years.”

And, when the magnates said in response they were willing to improve the organizational structure of the Negro American and National League, Smith said in his column:

“It is significant to note, dear reader, that this concern is not motivated by a desire to improve the status of the Negro player, but simply to protect their own selfish interests.”

Of the Negro League magnates, he said:

“The truth of the matter is this:  Few, if any, of the owners in Negro baseball, are sincerely interested in the advancement of the Negro player, or what it means in respect to the Negro race as a whole.  They’ll deny that, of course, and shout to the highest heavens that racial progress comes first and baseball next.  But actually, the preservation of their shaky, littered, infested, segregated baseball domicile comes first, last, and always.”

Later in the column, he accused the owners of caring for nothing except:

“(T)he perpetuation of the ‘slave trade’ they had developed via the channels of segregated baseball.”

Smith felt integration was not only critical for the “advancement of the Negro player” and “the race as a whole,” but also critical to the Negro Leagues themselves.

In response to a letter written by Hubert Ballentine, an outfielder for the semi-pro East St. Louis Colts, which echoed the sentiments of many claiming integration would be the death knell of the Negro Leagues, Smith said:

“Negro baseball cannot be a success without major league cooperation.  Proof of that contention exists right today.  Our players receive salaries that the average big league player would scorn.  Our players receive less money per month than players in the class ‘B’ minor leagues… (I) believe that anything done by the majors to improve the status of Negro players will prove beneficial and advantageous to Negro baseball in every way.”

Smith held onto that belief through the signing and debut of Jackie Robinson, believing an organized Negro League could “(L)ine up with the majors and serve as recruiting grounds.”

Much of his hope for a long-term place for the Negro Leagues in organized baseball was lost in January of 1948, after the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, signed 22-year-old Chicago American Giants catcher John Ritchey, who had won the Negro American League batting title in 1947.

John Ritchey

John Ritchey

Dr. John B. Martin—the American Giants owner and Negro American League President—protested the signing to Commissioner Chandler, claiming San Diego “had stolen Richey.”

Smith picked up the story:

“(Martin) demanded an investigation.

“But before Chandler could go to work on the case, he asked Martin to send him a duplicate of Richey’s contract for the past season…when Martin searched through his files—or whatever in the word he uses to keep such important documents—there was no contract to be found.  He then called in Candy Jim Taylor, manager of the club.  ‘I want Richey’s contract for last season,’ he said.  ‘I need to send it to Chandler.’

“Taylor raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘I don’t have his contract,’ he said.  ‘You’re the owner and you sign the ball players.”

Taylor had not.

“Martin had to write Chandler to tell him he could not find Richey’s contract.  ‘But,’ he wrote, ‘he’s still my property.  He played on my club all last year.’

“The commissioner must have rolled in the aisle when he learned of this laxity on the part of the president of the Negro American League.  Obviously, he has been operating his club on an Amos ‘n’ Andy basis.

“Chandler then wrote to Martin: ‘The Executive Council of Baseball would want to handle, with the most careful ethics the cases of organized baseball taking players from the Negro Leagues.  At present , I am somewhat  at a loss to know how we can hold one of our minor league clubs responsible for the violation of an alleged contract when the contract itself cannot be found, and when apparently those responsible for obtaining the contract are uncertain whether or not the ever did obtain it.’”

Smith noted that Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson made the same “robbery” claim when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Robinson:

“But like Martin, he was unable to produce a bonafide contract with Robinson’s name on it.  That too, we’ll call an oversight.”

Those “oversights” said Smith, not integration of professional baseball, were what had cost the owners.

But, ever the optimist, Smith made one last effort to save Negro Baseball, with a plan that had it been successful,  could be the pitch for a reality show.  That story, coming up Friday

 

Fred Downer

30 Mar

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.

Fred Downer

Fred Downer

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.

Mathis Williams

Mathis Williams

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.

 

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:

Mule Suttles

Mule Suttles

Our Girl Scribe Sees Mule’s Hit

Marian Foster Downer--The Defender's "Girl Scribe"

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, then with The Chicago Herald-American, 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.”

Fred Downer

Fred Downer

Frederick Douglas Downer died in Chicago on March 10, 1986.

“Nature Boy” Williams

31 Dec

natureboy

By the time James “Nature Boy” Williams joined the Indianapolis Clowns in 1955 the team had become a full-time barnstorming attraction, having dropped out of the Negro American League which itself was in its death throes.

Later that season The Washington Afro-American said:

 “Williams already has become the fans’ number one idol.  His side-splitting antics and peculiar catches around first base have won rave notices.”

The 6’ 2” 220 pound Williams spent more than a decade with the clowns and was known for batting barefoot, playing with the large glove–as pictured–and dancing at first base with umpires.

Jet Magazine reported in 1964:

“Williams played the entire 1963 season with his right eye completely blind due to an off-season accident and without even his teammates knowing his condition.”

natureboywilliams

The Clowns played their last full season of tour dates in 1988, the team officially disbanded after playing a few games in 1989.

Williams died in Maryland in 1980 at the age of 50.

Nath McClinic—Negro Leaguer, Southern Lawman

24 Aug

Nathaniel “Nath” McClinic (often incorrectly referred to as “Nat”) was humble about his abilities.  Every Negro League contemporary of McClinic I had the opportunity to speak with over the years described him as being one of the best centerfielders of the post-integration era Negro Leagues, possessing great speed and an excellent arm.

McClinic would simply say “I could run and throw, but I couldn’t hit the curveball.”

Born in Georgia in 1924, McClinic served in the Army on Iwo Jima and led the Army baseball team to island championships before his discharge in 1946.

Nathaniel “Nath” McClinic

Upon his return from the service, McClinic and fellow Georgian Earnest Long were signed by the Chattanooga Choo Choo’s in the Negro Southern League.  McClinic also spent time with the Cleveland Buckeyes and Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League.  The only official records for McClinic are two at bats with no hits for Cleveland in 1948.

McClinic settled in Rome, Georgia after his professional career, managing and playing for the Lindale Dragons in the semi-pro Georgia Negro State League—also called the Josh Gibson League—Lindale was one of the best semi-pro clubs in the south throughout the late forties and early fifties, and had great success against local white teams.

In 1965 McClinic became the first African-American police officer in Floyd County Georgia, a year later he became the first African American graduate of the Georgia State Police Academy.

McClinic often told the story of one of his first arrests after joining the force.  He and the only other African-American officer arrested a white man for public intoxication.  Upon bringing the man to the police station, McClinic was told, “Don’t ever arrest a white man, regardless of what you see him doing.” Later that year a new police chief was appointed and the order was rescinded.

McClinic served as an officer and investigator for the next twenty years, retiring in 1986.

Nath McClinic

After his retirement, McClinic was a regular attendee at Negro League reunions and was honored in Cooperstown in 1991 as one of the “Living Legends of the Negro Leagues.”

McClinic passed away April 3, 2004, in Rome, Georgia.