Tag Archives: Negro Leagues

John Milton Dabney

15 Jun

Born in November of 1867 in Richmond, Virginia, the son of former slaves, John Milton Dabney spent his childhood working for his father who became a successful restaurant owner and caterer in Richmond after the Civil War.

In 1885, Dabney went to work at the Argyle Hotel in Babylon, Long Island.  He joined the hotel’s baseball team (ostensibly composed of the hotel’s service workers, but some of the best amateur players on the East Coast were recruited for the team by head waiter Frank P. Thompson, as Dabney likely was), intended to provide entertainment for the summer tourists.

The Argyle Hotel Athletics fared well against the strongest amateur teams in the area and caught the eye of a white promoter, John F Lang.   Under Lang’s management, the team began touring that summer as the first professional African-American baseball team, the Cuban Giants.  The following year, Lang sold the team to Walter Cook.

John Milton Dabney

Initially a left fielder, Dabney also pitched and played first base for the Cuban Giants in 1885-86 and for the Cuban X-Giants in the 1890s.

Dabney went to work for the United States Postal Service and played baseball in Richmond for decades–he also played football for the Richmond Athletic Club and worked as a boxing referee.  According to the Baltimore Afro-American, “No amateur team in Richmond was complete unless Milton Dabney played first base.”

In 1897, Dabney  captained the Eclipse, a team based in Richmond, The Richmond Planet said:

“Dabney, who will play first base is perhaps one of the most celebrated colored players in the United States  He has played on clubs all over the country, notably with the Cuban Giants  He knows the game from A to Z and can be depended on at all times”

While Milton Dabney was a pioneer of black baseball, his older brother Wendell Phillips Dabney was a pioneer in another field.  An author, composer, and publisher of The Enterprise, and later The Union,  Cincinnati-based black newspapers, The Chicago Defender called him “The dean of Negro journalists.” he was one of the most prominent African-American newspaper publishers and political activists of the first half of the 20th century.

Wendell Phillips Dabney

Wendell Phillips Dabney

Dabney eventually went to live in Newark, New Jersey, where his son owned a funeral home, he died in a nursing home there in November of 1967, four days short of his 100th birthday.  Until his death, he was oldest surviving retired postal carrier in the country, and the last surviving member of black baseball’s first professional team.

“I mentioned Satchel and Josh and Cool Papa, I told Him he was Missing the boat”

18 May

After Heywood Broun’s remarks at the 1933 Baseball Writers Association dinner about integrating the game, The Pittsburgh Courier initiated a campaign to push the issue.  Despite some support inside baseball and from well-known newspapermen, the effort fell flat by opening day.

That summer, after the first East-West Game—won by the West All-Stars 11 to 7—at Comiskey Park, Henry L. Farrell of The Chicago Daily News suggested several “(M)ajor league club owners who are now on their knees might have their prayers answered,” by signing some the Negro League stars.

In the fall, The Chicago Defender briefly picked up the mantle from The Courier.  The paper asked their readers:

“How would you like to see the great baseball players of the Race performing in the major leagues? Wouldn’t you like to see Willie Foster, Satchel Paige and (Sam) Streeter pitch to Babe Ruth?”

If so:

“Sit down and write K.M. Landis commissioner of baseball, 333 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago.”

The following week, the paper reported that Landis’ office had refused to comment.  When baseball’s winter meetings commenced in Chicago in December, The Defender promised readers that the letters they had sent:

“(A)re not being passed on lightly as many suggested would be the case.  On the contrary, the club owners are downright concerned and from the inside word leaked out that some action would be taken.”

The optimism was tempered later that week when their reporter was barred from covering a meeting where he was told “vital points were discussed.”  The Defender reporter was told no newspapermen would be admitted, but:

“That sinister moves were being made against your author’s admission became a certainty when a well-known writer from one of the downtown papers came along, gave the high sign and was admitted.”

When 1933 came to a close, integration was no closer to being a reality than it was 11 months earlier as Broun stood to deliver his remarks to the baseball writers.

Four years later, Sam Lacy from The Baltimore Afro-American met with Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith in an attempt to revive the subject:

“I mentioned Satchel and Josh and Cool Papa, I told him he was missing the boat.”

Sam Lacy

Sam Lacy

Griffith, he said, told him the timing was wrong, and that Southern-born players would not accept integration.

The next major effort came in 1939.

Political support had generally been limited to socialist and communist organizations—the Young Communist League spent the summer of ’39 gathering signatures to present to Commissioner Landis.  But, in July of that year, the Illinois House of Representatives adopted a resolution which read in part:

“Resolved, by the House of Representatives of the Sixty-first General Assembly.  That the owners of all professional baseball teams in the United States, both in the major and minor leagues be strongly urged to give baseball players of the colored race the same opportunity of becoming players on their respective teams as is accorded to such players of the white race.”

Another push came from Pittsburgh as well.

Wendell Smith, who was playing baseball at West Virginia State College when Broun made his speech in 1933, was now a reporter for The Courier. In July, he promised readers:

“The most exclusive, startling and revealing expose, of the attitude of the major league players and managers themselves, ever written.”

Wendell Smith

Wendell Smith

Over the course of several weeks Smith asked 40 players and eight managers as they passed through Pittsburgh, “Are Negro ballplayers good enough to ‘crash’ the majors?”

The Courier’s Chester Washington said in a column to introduce the series of articles:

“One of the major reasons why Mr. Smith’s discovery is so revolutionary is that the club owners, in trying to pass the buck, have blamed the ban on the players themselves.  They claimed that the injection of colored stars into the clubs would bring about friction and dissention… (Smith) practically disproves this contention.

“Fearlessly buttonholing the managers and outstanding players of all the National League clubs, Mr. Smith received scores of testimonials which should be a revelation to the owners.”

A sampling of the statements collected by Smith:

Ernie Lombardi, Cincinnati Reds:  “(Satchel) Paige is as good as (Dizzy) Dean.”

Johnny Vander Meer, Cincinnati Reds:  “I wouldn’t object.”

James “Doc” Prothro, Philadelphia Phillies: “If given permission I would jump at the opportunity to sign up a good Negro ballplayer.”

Leo Durocher, Brooklyn Dodgers:  “(Satchel) Paige, (Bill “Cy”) Perkins, (Mule) Suttles and (Josh) Gibson are good enough to be in the majors right now…I certainly would use a Negro ballplayer if the bosses said it was all right.”

Gabby Hartnett, Chicago Cubs:  “I am sure that if we were given permission to use them, there would be a mad scramble between managers to sign them.”

Gabby Hartnett

Gabby Hartnett

Dizzy Dean, Chicago Cubs: “If some of the colored players I’ve played against were given a chance to play in the majors they’d be stars as soon as they joined up.”

Pepper Martin, St. Louis Cardinals: “Some of the big league players would object, but on the whole I think they would be accepted.”

Pie Traynor, Pittsburgh Pirates: “believe me when I say I have seen countless numbers of Negro ball players who could have made the grade in the majors.  Only their color kept them out.  If given permission, I would certainly use a Negro player who had the ability.”

Honus Wagner, Pittsburgh Pirates:  “Yes, down through the years I have seen any number of Negro players who should have been in big league baseball.”

Over the next five years, Smith would interview more than 150 additional major leaguers, who would echo the sentiments of his original 40, keeping the pressure on professional baseball to desegregate.

Cecil and Josh

21 Jan

Newspapers across the country saw it as a human interest story about baseball; the Black Press saw it very differently.  With his team in a slump, New York Giants Manager Bill Terry brought in 13-year-old Cecil Terry to “bring the Giants some badly needed luck.”

Cecil Haley

Cecil Haley

The Associated Press said of Haley’s first day on the job:

“Cecil, a Negro mascot, was given a Giant uniform yesterday, allowed to sit in the dugout for the first time and promised a trip West if he’d bring the Giants some badly-needed luck.  The net result of his work?  Pirates 4, Giants 3.”

Very different stories appeared in the Black press.  The Washington Afro-American said:

“(O)rganized big leagues will have colored mascots but steadfastly refuse to accept them as players.  The proud lad sits under the bat rack in the Giants’ dugout, but to date, something must be wrong, because the Giants are hopelessly battling for fifth place.”

The New York Age said:

“Cecil Haley, New York Giants colored mascot, will know better when he grows older and tries to get a job playing for the same team.”

The same day that Haley appeared on the bench with the Giants, New York pitcher Carl Hubbell spoke with The Pittsburgh Courier about Josh Gibson:

“‘(H)e’s one of the greatest backstops in the history of baseball, I think…Boy–how he can throw!’ exclaimed Hubbell.

josh

“There seems to be nothing to it when he throws.  He just whips the ball down to second base like it had a string on it.  He’s great, I’m telling you.  Any team in the big leagues could use him right now.’

“But, with all that,’ said Hubbell, ‘the thing I like best about him is that he’s as fast as greased lightening.  You know, after a few years a catcher usually slows up considerably from bending down so much.  But that guy–why, he’s never slowed down.”

That summer, a new effort was underway to integrate baseball.  A petition drive led by the Young Communist League collected between 25,000 and 100,000 (reports varied) and delivered to National League President Ford Frick,  and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis at the 1939 winter meeting in Cincinnati.

The Afro-American said Frick “avoided the issue by declaring that a ‘social problem’ was involved for which the big leagues were not responsible.”

There is no public record of the commissioner’s response.

Josh Gibson, with two-time Communist Vice-Presidential Candidate James W. Ford looking on, signs the 1939 petition to end racial discrimination in professional baseball.

I published a shorter version of this post on August 27, 2012.

Birmingham Sam— The Last Great Star of the Indianapolis Clowns

9 May

Richard “King Tut” King’s illness, which led to his retirement in the spring of 1959, left a void with the Indianapolis Clowns— James “Nature Boy” Williams, was popular, but the barnstormers needed someone with Tut’s charisma.  They finally found him in 1962; his name was Sam Brison

The St. Petersburg Times described one of his early appearances:

“A limber fellow raced across the diamond in an Indianapolis Clowns uniform and bowed in the direction of teammate first baseman extraordinary Nature boy Williams.  Minutes later fans were acclaiming a new star…he shows signs of becoming one of the all-time greats”

Given his resemblance to King Tut; Clowns owner Syd Pollock originally billed Brison “King Tut Jr.”  The excellent book “Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and his Great Black Teams,” by Pollock’s son Allan and James Riley told the story of how he was renamed.  Brison approached Pollock and said he had a problem with the name:

“Problem is, I didn’t even know the man.  Seen his picture on the bus.  He musta been popular as God.  Fans keep asking me, ‘How your Daddy?’ and I got no answer.  Ain’t gonna lie, ain’t gonna say, ‘My Daddy fine, I’ll tell him you be asking.’  These people feel strong about King Tut.”

"Birmingham" Sam Brison

“Birmingham” Sam Brison

When Pollock asked if he just wanted to be called by his name, Brison said:

“No, I figure Birmingham Sam be good.  People ask me about how Birmingham is.  I can answer that.”

“Birmingham Sam” would be the team’s biggest draw during his 16 years with the team.  Following the example of many members of the clowns throughout the team’s history, Brison also spent his winters playing basketball, first with Goose Tatum’s Harlem Road Kings, then with the Harlem Globetrotters—on the basketball court he said he “had a lot of showmanship about me…I did a lot of hollering.”

Never one for understatement, some of Pollock’s press releases described Brison as “one of the best fielders in baseball and hailed as the greatest comedian in sports history. “  The six-foot-two-inch Brison would often begin performances by “unpacking” two-foot-seven-inch Dero Austin from a suitcase at home plate.

In 1969 The Associated Press reported that Brison had secured a spring training tryout with the Boston Red Sox’ Carolina League Winston-Salem franchise, Brison told the wire service:

“I just want to get to Florida and show my stuff.”

Brison said an injury earlier in the spring had led to the cancelation of a tryout with the Cincinnati Reds—there’s no record of the whether the Red Sox try out ever took place.  The Associated Press story incorrectly said the 29-year-old Brison was only 23—his real age would have made it especially difficult for him to break into organized ball in 1969.

In the mid-1970s, during the beginning of the end for the Clowns as a viable business, Negro League Baseball was becoming the subject of renewed interest.  In 1976, the barnstorming tradition of teams like the Clowns made the big screen with the release of “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.”

In order to add authenticity to the baseball scenes stars Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor were joined in the cast by Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner (two-time American League all-star), Jophrey Brown (pitched in one game for the 1968 Chicago Cubs, then became a well-respected Hollywood stuntman), and “Birmingham” Sam Brison.

"Bingo Long" movie poster

“Bingo Long” movie poster

Brison played shortstop Louis Keystone in the movie.

“Birmingham” Sam Brison is seventy-two-years-old and lives, appropriately enough, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Update: “Birmingham” Sam Brison passed away in April of 2014.

Monte Irvin–Happy 95th Birthday

25 Feb

Montford Merrill “Monte” Irvin was born on this date in 1919.

Monte Irvin (r) with Jackie Robinson at The Jackie Robinson Store 111 West 125th Street in Harlem, 1953

Monte Irvin (r) with Jackie Robinson at The Jackie Robinson Store 111 West 125th Street in Harlem, 1953

“We used to look at each other and say, ‘We play the same game with the same rules, the same bat, the same ball, the same field. What the hell does color have to do with it? You don’t play with color. You play with talent.”  Monte Irvin

A Thousand Words–Satch and Diz

15 Mar

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Ted Williams called for the recognition of Negro League players in his 1966 Hall of Fame induction speech:

“The other day Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty second home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, “Go get ’em, Willie.” Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better  This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”

After Williams’ speech, Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean became one of Paige’s most vocal supporters.In 1968 Dean said:

“I think that he was one of the most outstanding pitchers I ever saw throw a ball and too bad he couldn’t have broken in in his prime when he could really fire that ball.”

Dean encouraged fans to write letters to members of the Baseball Writers Association of America to tell then “The venerable Leroy Robert Paige has proved he belongs in Cooperstown.”

Dean said he had “played more baseball against Satchel Paige,” than any other Major League player:

“I certainly think that if anybody belongs in the Hall of Fame, Satchel Paige deserves it as much as anyone else.  I think he was one of the outstanding pitchers of all times, and a guy who has given his life to baseball.”

Paige was the first player inducted to the Hall of Fame by The Special Committee on the Negro Leagues in 1971.

satchndiz

A Thousand Words–Satchel Paige, Chicago White Sox

6 Feb

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What if?  Satchel Paige in a White Sox uniform.  From 1938-1947 the Sox never finished better than 3rd, add Satchel Paige to those teams, which already had some good pitching including Ted Lyons, Eddie LopatThornton Lee, Monty Stratton and Orval Grove, and Sox fans might have had something to cheer about.  But of course, by the time Paige had a chance to play in the Major Leagues he was at least 42-years-old.  Paige would have helped at the box office as well.  For example, on July 18, 1942 the Sox drew slightly better than 24,000 for a doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers, across town at Wrigley Field a nearly identical amount came out to watch Paige pitch the first five innings for the Memphis Red Sox against the New York Cuban Stars.

Instead, all White Sox fans have is this rare photo taken in 1965 when Paige appeared with the Indianapolis Clowns at Comiskey Park (Chicago Cubs outfielder George Altman is the catcher in the picture).

——-

in 1935, Gene Coughlin, a sports writer for The Los Angeles Evening Post-Record wrote a column that went largely ignored, calling on organized baseball to break the color barrier which “not only makes (baseball) look ridiculous but is at the same time passing up increased business.”  Coughlin predicted that if a Pacific Coast League team were to sign Paige, it “would be good for an extra 10.000 in attendance every time he goes to the mound.  And he became good despite the inane prejudice that drives the colored baseball player to the sandlots and keeps him there.”

Coughlin’s column concluded:

“When you come right down to it, that baseball doesn’t give a darn whether it is pitched or caught by a white hand or a black one.  It is a symbol of game, a sport, and not a symbol of class distinction or color.”

Twelve years later organized baseball finally agreed.

King Tut

30 Jan

For almost 30 years Richard “King Tut” King was the clown prince of Negro League baseball and one of its biggest drawing cards.  King, born in 1905 in Philadelphia spent his youth playing in sandlot and semi-pro leagues.

He is listed as having made seven plate appearances for the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants in 1931—the rest of his nearly 30-year career was spent primarily as an entertainer.

Richard "King Tut" King

Richard “King Tut” King

King joined Charlie Henry’s Louisville-based Zulu Cannibal Giants in 1934.  The Cannibals wore grass skirts, red wigs and face paint.  Players were identified by “native” names, as with this lineup printed in The Meriden (CT) Daily Journal in advance of the team’s 1935 appearance:

“The Cannibals will lineup as follows:  Wahoo, right field, Limpopo, first base, Rufigi, center field, Tanna, left field; Taklooie, third base; Bissagoss, shortstop, Kangkol, second base, Nyass, Catcher; Kalahare, Pembra, Moke, Impo and Tankafu pitchers.”

Sometime during the 1935 season after the Cannibals had played a game with the Miami Giants, King, tired of irregular paydays with the cash-strapped Cannibals, stayed in Miami and joined the Giants.

The following season the Giants became the Ethiopian Clowns—later the Cincinnati Clowns and finally the Indianapolis Clowns– and King spent the next 22 years with the team.

He became most famous for his pantomime “shadow ball” routine with Spec Bebop, a ball juggling act with “Goose” Tatum, and playing with an over-sized first baseman’s mitt.

Richard "King Tut" King, left and Goose Tatum at Crosley Field, Cincinnati, performing the ball juggling routine

Richard “King Tut” King, left and Goose Tatum at Crosley Field, Cincinnati 1946, performing the ball juggling routine

For the most part, he did not participate in games.  As a result, it’s unclear exactly what his skill level was.

In 1948, Hall of Fame sportswriter Sam Lacy wrote in The Baltimore Afro-American said King:

“ Hasn’t hit a ball since they found his namesake’s tomb.”

Bob Motley, who was a Negro League umpire from 1947-1958, said in his biography:

“King Tut was actually a heck of a ballplayer and could put some serious wood on the ball.  I don’t particularly think he was major-league caliber, but he was good.”

At 45-years-old, King was pressed into duty as the regular first baseman on the Clowns’ 1949 barnstorming tour, The Associated Press said:

“Heretofore little has been known about his hitting prowess, since during the regular season the Clowns have used him only as a fun maker…at Atchison the other night, he slammed out three hits in five trips to the plate, including a long home run over the left field wall to slug the Clowns to a 9-6 victory over the mighty Kansas City Monarchs.”

While tremendously popular with fans across the country, and the top-billed member of the team in promotional materials throughout his career, the Black Press was not always in agreement about King’s act.

Near the end of his career, The Baltimore Afro-American said:

“Tut is a natural clown and a natural ballplayer…one of baseball’s most popular players among the fans as well as with his teammates.”

On the other hand, when King entertained the crowd at the 1947 East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park, he included two of his regular routines.   Frank “Fay” Young of The Chicago Defender, often called “The dean of Black sportswriters,” was not amused:

“(T)here are thousands who did not approve of King Tut’s crap shooting stunt or his shimmy in the grass skirt.  He could have left that part of his act at home.  The East vs. West classic is a high-class sport event.  Let’s keep it that way.”

Frank "Fay" Young, The Chicago Defender

Frank “Fay” Young, The Chicago Defender

King remained a huge drawing card throughout the 1950s; he spent each off-season appearing regularly with New York Broadway Clowns and New York Colored Clowns basketball teams, and occasionally with the Harlem Globetrotters.  He and Spec Bebop were part of the Jackie Robinson’s All-Star’s barnstorming tour in 1953.

King with Curtis "Junior" Johnson in a 1952 New York Broadway Clowns promotional photo

King with Curtis “Junior” Johnson in a 1952 New York Broadway Clowns promotional photo

On August 29, 1958, King was honored for what The Afro-American called “A million miles and a billion laughs,” at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia.  Jackie Robinson sent a congratulatory telegram and many Negro League legends were on hand, including Bill Yancey, Toussaint Allen, Mahlon Duckett, Bill Cash, Chaney White. Buddy Burbage, and Hank Miller.

King’s career came to an abrupt end before the 1959 season.  Jet Magazine reported:

“(King) suffered a memory lapse en route to spring training at St. Petersburg, Fl, was picked up by police and returned by air to Philadelphia where he was hospitalized.”

King was committed to the Pennsylvania State Hospital at Byberry; he died there in 1966.

“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.

A Thousand Words

6 Dec

Satchel Paige demonstrates four of his favorite pitches to The Baltimore Afro-American, 1948:

The sidearm curve (outshoot):  “A wrist-twist causes counter-clockwise spin which makes the ball bend away from a right-handed batter.”

Sidearm Curve--outshoot

Sidearm Curve–outshoot

The overhand curve (drop): “Is gripped and thrown with a twist as to let the ball leave the hand with a snap between thumb and forefinger.  Overspin thus makes ball take a sudden dip.”

Overhand curve--drop

Overhand curve–drop

The Screwball (inshoot):  “Ball slides off fingers with a rapid clockwise spin, making it twist away from a left-handed hitter.”

Screwball--inshoot

Screwball–inshoot

The knuckleball:  “takes odd twists and turns even the pitcher can’t predict.”

Knuckle ball

Knuckle ball

“May every page you turn be a Satchel Paige.” Greg Proops, The Smartest Man in the World Podcast.

satchelbraves