Tag Archives: Negro League

Page Fence Giants

30 Sep

The Page Fence Giants would become one of the great early teams in black baseball; some sources say they played 156 games, winning 118 their first year.  But things did not go well in their first game.

Organized by John “Bud” Fowler and Grant “Home Run” Johnson, the team represented the Adrian, Michigan-based Page Woven Wire Fence Company; at the time the nation’s largest fence company;  Augustus “Gus” Parsons served as the team’s business manager and scheduled their games (he’s often misidentified as the team’s manager).

Grant "Home Run" Johnson, left center row and John "Bud" Fowler, right center row, with the independent Findley (OH) Sluggers in 1894.

Grant “Home Run” Johnson, left center row and John “Bud” Fowler, right center row, with the independent Findley (OH) Sluggers in 1894.

Their first game was scheduled for April 10 against the Western League’s Indianapolis Hoosiers.

The Indianapolis News said of the Giants:

“Besides playing ball they perform feats of tumbling, and there is a quartet among them that sings between innings.”

The team also would arrive in towns riding bicycles in parade formation (the Giants’ other sponsor was the Monarch Bicycle Company).

While they often played for mostly white crowds The News said the stands “were very nearly peopled” with black fans; they did not get the show they had hoped for:

“In the first inning the Indianapolis team had fourteen men to bat and scored eight runs.  It seemed evident that one more inning of slaughter like the first would precipitate a race riot, and President (and manager William “Bill”) Watkins diplomatically let up.  The ease with which Indianapolis did everything it wanted to, and the “rough deal” the colored team received at the hands of umpire Andrews conspired to make the score look like the original report of the Armenian massacre…The one-sided score, which misrepresents both teams as far as figures are concerned.”

Page Fence lost 26-1.

The Box Score

The Box Score

They also lost two games against the Cincinnati Reds, then lost Fowler and pitcher George Wilson to the Adrian Reformers in the Michigan State League (where they were teammates of Honus Wagner).

The Giants returned to Indianapolis in 1896, losing 16-3 to the Hoosiers

The Giants returned to Indianapolis in 1896, losing 16-3 to the Hoosiers

Despite their first game, the Giants continued drawing crowds and winning games until they disbanded in 1898—with most of the players joining the newly formed Chicago Columbia Giants.

A Thousand Words “Cool Papa” Bell

3 Jul

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James “Cool Papa” Bell (center) poses with an oversized bat, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn (left) and Monte Irvin, in 1974 after Bell was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Negro league Committee.  Irvin was inducted the year before.

In 1984 Negro League pitcher Chet Brewer said of Bell’s legendary speed:

Chet Brewer

Chet Brewer

“In Mexico, he was on the same team that I was on.  The first game that he played in, he was on first base and the next hitter hit a ball into right field.  Cool Papa went into third base so fast that they stopped the game and said he cut across behind the pitcher.  The said, ‘it’s impossible, no pasaria, it just couldn’t happen.  Nobody could go from first to third that fast.”

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Luke Easter, Sausage King

31 May

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Between the 1952 and ’53 season, Cleveland Indians first baseman Luke Easter (r) went into the sausage business with his brother-in-law Raymond Cash (l).  The business, Ray’s Sausage still operates in Cleveland.  In a Jet Magazine article  Easter said they only managed to sell 20 pounds their first week, but by January of 1953 they were selling 2,300 pounds a day.  The article said Easter had “taken out a license to place his sausage on sale” at Indians games.  He said:

“I can make this business go by hitting lots of home runs (but) even if our sausage makes a million dollars I won’t quit baseball, I’ll stay in baseball as long as I can walk.”

During the fourth game of the 1953 season Easter was hit by a pitch, breaking a bone in his foot, as a result the 37-year-old, who had hit 31 home runs with 97 RBIs in 127 games the previous season, dropped to 7 and 31 in 68 games;  his career with the Indians ended after only 6 games in 1954.  But while Easter didn’t hit “lots of home runs” in Cleveland after starting the company, he did stay in baseball for almost “as long as (he could) walk.”

Playing primarily in the International League with the Buffalo Bisons and Rochester Red Wings, Easter remained in baseball until 1964, hitting more than 235 homes runs.

Easter was killed in a hold up in Cleveland in 1979.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized the day after his death:

“For all of his huge size and great strength, Luke Easter was a gentle man.  It is a contradiction to the way in which he lived that his life should be ended violently.

“He had courage.  He played first base for the Cleveland Indians from 1949 to 1954, a time when it was far from easy to be a black athlete in the major leagues…He was shot dead yesterday at age 63, victim of a cowardly attack from ambush outside a bank office .

“It is a wound to the community.  Luke Easter, athlete and gentleman, will be missed.”

Luke Easter, 1949

Luke Easter, 1949

Adventures in Barnstorming—Fake Cuban Stars

27 Mar

One of the pitfalls when trying to book a famous barnstorming team to play your local club was making sure you were actually getting what you thought you were getting.

Fake House of David teams crisscrossed the country for years; there were reports of fake Negro League teams and fake versions of the Nebraska Indians.  Most made an attempt to field a competitive team who could at least pass for the team they were fraudulently representing;  some didn’t even bother.

Charles A. Mills thought he was getting the authentic Cuban Stars for a May 1910 game against his St. Louis Giants; the Cubans roster included the great pitcher Jose Mendez, and well-known players like pitcher-outfielder Luis Padron, first baseman Augustin “Tinti” Molina and shortstop Luis Bustamante.

None of them arrived in St. Louis.

Jose Mendez

Jose Mendez

The Freeman said:

“Much talk is going the rounds over the way in which the management of the St. Louis Giants were deceived by a bunch of get-rich-quick schemers, who claimed to be the real Cuban Stars, when in fact there was not a Cuban in the club.”

More than thirty-six-hundred fans came to Kuebler’s Field to see the famous barnstormers play the hometown team, but:

“Mr. C.L. East, advance agent for the supposed Cubans, brought to the city a set of misfits to fool the public and get the money.”

The Freeman insisted that Mills, who bore the brunt of the reaction from angry fans, was an innocent victim of a scam and that the impostors were “in no way the fault of the St. Louis Giants.’”

Mills called it a “high-handed game to defraud the public,” an “unpleasant occurrence that has caused (The Giants) to be unjustly criticised (sic) by some of our best followers.”

There is no record of the outcome of the game or a mention of whether the game was even completed.

The legitimate Cuban Stars, with Mendez, played in St. Louis the following year.

Luis Bustamante

Luis Bustamante

Charles Mills and the St. Louis Giants

25 Mar

The origin of the Negro League St. Louis Giants, one of the Western Independent Clubs, has become clouded by conflicting histories –some say Charles Alexander Mills started the team in 1909, others say he started it earlier; contemporaneous accounts in the Black press differ, but seem to indicate that Conrad Kuebler, a white businessman (and ballpark owner) operated the team beginning in 1906 or ’07, with Mills becoming involved with the club later (the team was almost universally referred to as Kuebler’s Giants before 1909, when Mill’s became involved, and references as late as 1915 confirm  that Kuebler still had an ownership stake in the team).

Mills’ background is equally as murky, born around 1879; some sources call him “a bank messenger,” others “a tavern owner.”  He did for a time own a bar, the Keystone Cafe and Cabaret at the corner of Compton and Lawton in St. Louis which he opened in 1915—The Freeman said “Hours of good entertainment and high-class wines…can always be found at the Keystone.”

In any case, Mills operated the team on a shoestring in 1909; The Freeman said in 1911:

“Two years ago, when baseball was emerging from the field of darkness into the dim light of athletic fame, the present St. Louis Giants baseball team sprang into existence.  At that time baseball was something new to the Negroes of St. Louis and hardly 100 patrons attended the games.  Players would receive about .50 or .60 each for their share of the gate receipts.

“Their baseball uniform consisted of different colors, cheap material—every man wearing a different suit and stockings of a different type, therefore presenting a grotesque appearance.”

Charles Alexander Mills

Charles Alexander Mills

Within a year, Mills had transformed the Giants.

David Wyatt, a former Chicago Union Giants player turned sportswriter wrote about the opening of the 1910 season at Kuebler’s Field at the corner of Broadway and Pope:

“The St. Louis Giants pulled off a demonstrative honor of Negro baseball, the like of which has never been equaled in the history of the game.

“A monstrous street parade in which automobiles, landaus, coupes and traps played a conspicuous part, started promptly from in front of the Missouri Negro Republican League quarters at 12 o’clock and passed over a route which included all the principal thoroughfares inhabited by the Negro in St. Louis.”

Wyatt praised Mills “the genial and hustling business manager” of the Giants, who “proved conclusively that he is a type of young business- man who is not only endowed with spirit and proclivities of the up-and-doing variety, but he is putting the same into circulation and getting results.”

As for the game, Giants pitcher Bill Gatewood pitched a no-hitter against the Louisville Stars; an 11-0 victory in front of “an assemblage of about five thousand fans.”

By 1911, Mills had signed some of the best players in the country to join Gatewood, including team captain Dick Wallace and three of the Taylor Brothers; Ben, “Candy” Jim and “Steel Arm” Johnny.  The Giants, according to The Freeman now had “as good athletes as ever trod American soil.”

Giant Captain Wallace

Giant Captain Dick Wallace

Mills’ Giants won the St. Louis City League in 1912 and ’13 but were generally a .500 team in games against other Western Independent Clubs. Mills aggressively solicited opponents and filled the Giants schedule with games against all comers between league games.

A 1910 ad for Mills' St' Louis Giants soliciting games.

A 1910 ad soliciting games for Mills’ St. Louis Giants

Despite maintaining a fairly strong following in the African-American community, the Giants were something of a nomadic club–according to reports of games in The Freeman, The Chicago Defender and The St. Louis Argus the team played “home” games in no less than seven ballparks during Mills’ tenure.

The Giants continued operating as an independent team (although they seemed to have disbanded for most of 1917 and ’18— tensions stemming from the East St. Louis race riots in May and July of 1917 were probably a contributing factor).

In 1920, Mills was present at the YMCA on 18th and Vine in Kansas City for Rube Foster‘s meeting to form the Negro National League; his Giants finished 6th in 1920 and 3rd in 1921 (Giants’ center fielder Oscar Charleston hit–depending on the source– .433 or .444 that season).

Mills was either ousted or sold his interest in the team (depending on the source) after the 1921 season, and new owners Dr. Sam Sheppard (variously spelled Shepard, Sheperd, and Sheppard) who had played for the New York Gorhams in 1887 and Dick Kent renamed the team the St. Louis Stars.

Mills died in St. Louis in 1944; his role as a pioneer of black baseball so forgotten that as late as 1994, James A Riley in The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues refers to Mills as “A white businessman.”

Gaines and Raines

12 Feb

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Two of the early foreign players—or gaijin—and the third and fourth African-Americans to sign to play baseball in Japan pose with the man who negotiated their contracts in 1953: Jonas Gaines, left and Larry Raines with Abe Saperstein of Harlem Globetrotters fame.

gaines

Jonas Gaines

Gaines, born in either 1914 or ’15 depending on the source, was nearing the end of a long career; a graduate of Southern University, he played semi-pro ball in North Dakota then began his professional career with the Newark Eagles in 1937, went to the Baltimore  Elite giants in 1938 and appeared in five East-West All-Star games.  Gaines served in the US Army in WWII and  finished his Negro League career with the Philadelphia Stars in 1950.  He spent 1951 and ’52 with the Minot Mallards in the Manitoba-Dakota (Man-Dak) League.

He spent one season in Japan with the Hankyu Braves in the Pacific League, where he was teammates with Raines.  The Braves third gaijin was another former Negro League player, John Britton.  Britton and Jimmy Newberry were the first two African-American players in Japan, having signed together in 1952.  Newberry, like Gaines, left after one season.

Gaines returned to the states in 1954 and led the Pampa Oilers, champions of the West Texas-New Mexico League, with 18 wins.  He finished his career with the Carlsbad Potashes in the Southwestern League in 1957. He died in his native Louisiana in 1998.

Larry Raines, Japanese baseball card

Larry Raines, Japanese baseball card

Raines was a twenty-two-year-old infielder for the Chicago American Giants and hit .298 in 1952.  Saperstein, who helped engineer the deal that brought Britton and Newberry to Japan, negotiated the contracts for Gaines and Raines, who according to Jet Magazine were paid $1000 a month by the Braves.

Raines quickly became a star in Japan, leading the Pacific League with 61 stolen bases in 1953; he led the league with a .337 batting average, 96 runs and 184 hits, he also finished second in RBI’s in 1954.

Raines returned to the states and signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1955.  After two seasons in the minor leagues, he played in 96 games for the Indians in 1957.  He appeared in nine games with Cleveland in 1958 and played in the minor leagues until 1961.  Raines returned to Japan in 1962, playing one more season with the Braves.  He died in Michigan in 1978.

Dero Austin

10 Jan

 

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Dero Austin Jr. was one of the few Negro League “players” who was born too late; he was added to the Indianapolis Clowns in 1964 to try to recreate the fame of one of his predecessors, Spec Bebop, who had top billing with the team well into the 1950s.

Spec Bebop, circa 1952

Spec Bebop, circa 1952

Austin quickly joined  James “Nature Boy” Williams as one of the most popular members of the barnstorming team, but the Clowns were well past their heyday when they filled ballparks across the country.  Occasionally they still drew well, in Austin’s first season, 1964, 15,797 fans saw the Clowns in Chicago’s Comiskey Park on July 10; across town 13,556 fans watched the Cubs play the San Francisco Giants.

Austin would usually bat first in each game, replicating Eddie Gaedel’s appearance for Bill Veeck’s Saint Louis Browns in 1951–occasionally Satchel Paige would pitch to Austin.  While he appeared in publicity photo’s playing the field, he never appeared in the field during a game.

Satchel Paige pitching, Dero Austin at the plate.  Comiskey Park 1966

Satchel Paige pitching, Dero Austin at the plate. Comiskey Park 1966

Austin never became as popular as Bebop, and the Clowns continued playing to smaller crowds in smaller towns until they disbanded in the 1980s.

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Austin stayed with the Clowns well into the 70s and by 1974 was billed as the team’s manager.  The 31-inch tall Grandfield, Oklahoma native died in July of 1987 at age 39.

Adventures in Barnstorming

3 Sep

By 1908, Andrew “Rube” Foster was probably the best known African-American pitcher in the country.  The previous season, he and Pete Hill had jumped Sol White’s Philadelphia Giants to join the Leland Giants of Chicago, turning the Leland’s into a powerhouse.

As was the custom, the Leland Giants would play a number of games against small town teams when traveling to and from games against other professional teams and their 21 games against other National Independent Clubs teams.

In August of 1908, The Freeman related a story (apocryphal perhaps, but a good story nonetheless) about one of those small town games.

“On their way back from Cleveland, where they had been playing an engagement, they had an agreement to play a little ‘woods town’ team called ‘The Cow Boys,’  The contract called for the great Rube Foster to pitch.”

The story goes on to say that Foster noticed upon arriving that the locals knew him on sight.  Scheduled to pitch against a better team the following day, Foster instructed his team to begin calling the team’s catcher, James “Pete” Booker (who also jumped to the Leland’s from Philadelphia), “Foster.”

The story continues:

“Booker went in to pitch and Foster did the catching.  It worked fine, score 23-0.  The Cow Boys were more than delighted, as they had gotten five hits during the game…Everything went well until a commercial traveler who knows each player on the Leland Giants very well remarked ‘My friends, had Foster pitched that game he would have struck out every man.’ The whole town was in a rage in a little while, and it was a good thing the Lelands (sic) didn’t stop for supper, for those country people would have broke that team up.”

Leland Giants–Pete Hill, far left standing, Pete Booker, standing third from left, and Rube Foster, standing far right.

Hall of Famers Foster and Hill have been written about extensively and their prominent place in Dead Ball era Negro League Baseball is firmly established.  Less has been written about Booker, overshadowed by Hall of Famer Louis Santop and Bruce Petway (arguably the best defensive catcher ever, whose presence with the Leland’s in 1910 pushed Booker to first base), he was an excellent hitter and solid defensively behind the plate and at first.