Tag Archives: Negro National League

Lost Pictures: 1935 Newark Dodgers

14 Jun

35newark.jpg

A second team photo of the 1935 Newark Dodgers of the Negro National League.

Front row: Homer Craig, James Williams, Ted Bond, Melvin Markham, Frank McCoy, Johnny Hayes, Burnalle “Bun” Hayes, Paul “Sonny” Arnold

Back row: Willie Burns, Ray Dandridge, Bert Johnston, Leroy Miller, William Bell, Percy Lacey, Robert Evans, James Starks

The picture would have been taken after May 24 when, according to The Brooklyn Citizen, Dick Lundy–who was feuding with Dodgers’ owner Charles Tyler–was traded to the Brooklyn Eagles for Bun Hayes–William Bell replaced Lundy as manager. Lundy ended up finishing the season with the New York Cubans as a result of what The New York Age called, “a ruling of the moguls” which allowed him to join that club.

Eagles owners Abe and Effa Manley purchased the Dodgers after the 1935 season–reported to have been a settlement of a $500 debt Tyler owed Manley–and merged the clubs becoming the Newark Eagles.

1935newarkdodgers

The other extant photo of the  Dodgers

“It is Against the Best Interests of Baseball”

13 Feb

Wendell Smith spent most of his tenure at The Pittsburgh Courier making the case for the integration of professional baseball—he spent an equal amount of time decrying the way the Negro American and National Leagues operated.

wendellsmith

Wendell Smith

With the owners preparing to  convene at New York’s Theresa Hotel in December of 1944, Smith made the case he had made on many occasions in the past: the need for a Negro League Commissioner:

Smith said:

“If any group of businessmen ever needed a boss, a guy with a big stick, it’s negro baseball.”

But, he said:

“I don’t know what the magnates are going to do, and what I gather, they don’t know either. “

Of most concern to Smith was that the two league presidents—Tom Wilson, the Nashville businessman who was president of the American League, and John B. Martin, the Memphis dentist who was president of the National, both were team owners; Wilson of the Baltimore Elite Giants and Martin of the Chicago American Giants:

wilson.jpg

Wilson

“This dual role is against the best interests of baseball.”

Smith chided Martin for agreeing that a commissioner was needed, but at the same time claiming there would be no qualified candidates until after the end of World War II:

martin

Martin

“Mr. Martin says that Negro baseball should continue in the same rut it is in until after the war.”

Smith said of Martin’s claim:

“To keep insisting that there isn’t a man capable of serving as commissioner is, of course, a lot of tommy-rot—and is simply a way of evading the issue. There are many capable men and I’m sure one of them would accept the job if the owners put enough financial support behind such a position.  The man appointed to such a job must be well known, courageous and unswerving.  He must be a man who has been successful in other fields and one who has had administrative experience.”

While Smith might have been the best candidate, he did not advance himself for the position, instead offering three viable candidates.

The first, was recently retired three-term Illinois Congressman Arthur Mitchell—Mitchell was the first Democratic African American elected to Congress.

His second recommendation was John Warren Davis, who as president of West Virginia State College took the school—as The New York Times said, “an unaccredited land grant school,” when he arrived in 1919, into an accredited college which “became the first black school to seek integration in the South.”

Smith’s third choice was Judge William Hastle, a former and future federal judge who, the previous year, had resigned his position as a civilian aide to Secretary of War Henry Stimson over segregated training facilities and the inequity of assignments between white and non-white military personnel.

Smith said all three would “do an excellent job,” but that they would “demand decent salaries and full and complete authority,” and therefore none would be appointed.

Smith said:

“It is indeed tragic that Negro baseball must continue to operate on the slip-shod basis it has existed on for so long.  It has grown to the point where it is now a two to three-million-dollar business.  It is one of the largest businesses operated by Negroes in this country and is a means of livelihood, directly and indirectly, for at least two thousand people.  Negro baseball is no longer a novelty.  It is a major business and I’m afraid that someday it is going to be killed by the very people who are thriving off of it now.”

Smith’s prediction was correct.  No commissioner was selected at the Theresa Hotel meeting, the subject appears to have never been addressed.  Reporters were barred from the first day of meetings, but as Smith said, “the scribes gave vent to their feelings so forcefully,” they were allowed in the second day.

Martin and Wilson were easily reelected as presidents of their respective leagues.

As Smith had assumed, the issue was shelved again, and the 1944 winter meeting turned out to be:

“(J)ust another one of those get togethers where everyone has a hell of a nice time,”

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

 

“Who Cares about Color, when the Scores are Tied?”

6 Jan

Beauregard Fitzhugh Moseley was one of the primary financial backers of the Leland Giants and after the dispute which led to the departure of Frank Leland, he partnered with Rube Foster and served as business manager for the club when he and Foster won the right in court to continue using that name.

Beauregard Fitzhugh Moseley

Beauregard Fitzhugh Moseley

In January of 1911, he wrote an open letter to the readers of The Broad Axe, what the paper called “A baseball appeal of a worthy undertaking by a worthy man to worthy men:”

“We are undertaking to organize a Negro National League of America, an enterprise that that needs no prospectus to convince one of its necessity to our people, who are already forced out of the game from a national standpoint, with the closing in and narrowing each year our opportunity to play with the white semi-pro teams, because of the organization of these teams into minor state and city leagues.

“Here in Chicago, the City League has barred all but possibly one colored club; this fact alone presages the day when there will be none, (unless) the Negro comes to his own rescue by organizing and patronizing the game successfully which would itself force recognition from minor white leagues to play us and share in the receipts; for with six or eight National Negro clubs playing clean, scientific baseball the public would soon ask itself the question which of the National Leagues are the stronger; just as it is queried about the world’s pugilistic championship until the promoters of the game were compelled to answer at Reno (Nevada), July 4th last (The Jack Johnson/Jim Jeffries fight).

Johnson and Jeffries in Reno

Johnson and Jeffries in Reno

“In that contest, just as in the coming contest of the world’s best ball clubs the Negro will be prepared, if he acts wise to take care of himself and be heralded again Champion of the World, so let these who serve the Race and assist it in holding its own back up and encourage the national  movement for with it goes the hope of the Race in more than one direction, for be it known that there are no greater leveler of men than manly sport such as baseball which is admired by white and black alike, appeals to their pride as athletes and to their senses as the best test of physical and mental superiority and here on the diamond before the frenzied anxious populace the Negro has the best opportunity of his present day advantage to display ability, that taken the ball player in Pennsylvania, and California to the Gubernatorial chair.”

John Kinley Tener, a major league player, had just been elected governor of Pennsylvania and George Cooper Pardee, who had made a name for himself as a college and amateur ballplayer served as California’s governor from 1903-1907.

Moseley then asked the most important question:

“Who care(s) about color, when the scores are tied and the home team is at bat in the ninth inning, with two gone and two on base?

“What is wasted is a man that can hit, be he blue, black, yellow, grizzle or gray, a hit that scores (runners) from 2nd and 3rd and the batter is thereafter a hero; hence, the importance of being a ‘hitter’ is a great asset, greater perhaps than any other I can now recall.

“So I appeal to all Race loving men in the cities in which it has been agreed to place a National League club to organize an effort to secure not only the franchise but the best club of ball players possible to the end, that nothing should retard the entire success of the national undertaking.  Hesitancy means ruin.  Procrastination has almost drove the talent from the fold and stagnation will surely set in if a business turn is not thrown over and around the game, $300 is a mere bagatelle for cities like St. Louis, Kansas City, Louisville, Memphis, New Orleans, Mobile and Columbus to raise, it is just $10 each for 30 men and yet this is sufficient to secure a franchise and guarantee the making of the circuit by each club, besides it should be the best investment  now apparent and make those who invest it proud by the returns due them at the end of the season.”

Mosley predicted that each team in an eight-team league could turn enough of profit to repay investors and create operating capital for the following season.

He made a final pitch:

“(O)rganize, get 1o of your Race men together and write at once for your franchise, hustle, the time is short.  The Schedule Committee must report on February 27th next and the organization must be complete and ready to play ball by Easter Sunday.  Men of the Race this appeal is to you for you and yours.  It is in vain or shall we have a Negro National Baseball League?”

His plea for an enduring league was in vain.

Rube Foster deserted Moseley before the 1911 season to form the Chicago American Giants; the failure to form a league has been posited as one of the reasons for the split.  Without Foster, the Leland Giants quickly faded from prominence.

Moseley’s brief tenure as a baseball executive was over after the 1911 season.  He returned to his many business interests, including land holdings in “The Black Eden,” Idlewild, Michigan.  He also owned the Idlewild Hotel and Dixie Land Park at 33rd and Wabash in Chicago–The Chicago Defender said of the Idlewild “It is one of the most pretentious hotels conducted for Colored people in the United States.”  And he continued to practice law–The Defender noted that upwards of “90 percent” of his clients were white–and remained a political force in Chicago’s Black Belt; Moseley also served as a presidential elector for Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party in 1912.

Ad for Moseley's Dixie Land Park

Ad for Moseley’s Dixie Land Park

It would be nearly a decade until the formation of a league, and Moseley would not live to see it.

Just two months before his former business partner, Foster and other team owners met at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City in February of 1912 to form the Negro National League, Moseley died of Influenza.  He was 54.

Rube Foster

Rube Foster

“Negro Baseball is Here to Stay”

24 Jul

At the close of the first Negro National League season in 1920, The Kansas City Sun declared “Negro baseball is here to stay.”

The paper made several observations about the state of the league and its future and picked the league’s first all-star team.  Beginning with a bit of bragging, the paper said that in spite of the Chicago American Giants winning the pennant, “Kansas City proved to be the best Negro baseball city.”

The Chicago American Giants

The Chicago American Giants

As evidence of Kansas City’s dominance, The Sun said:

“One hundred thousand White and Negro fans attended the Monarch games at Association Park the past season without the least bit of friction…(and) played to more local fans than the Kansas City Blues (of the American Association)…Negro teams used to play for a keg of beer, but now they play for $5,000 gates.”

The league as a whole, according to the paper, drew “more than 700,000 fans.”

but, it was not all a glowing review, The Sun did acknowledge one of the league’s biggest difficulties in the inaugural season, “(They) did not discover any real Negro umpires the past season;” inconsistent umpiring would remain an issue in subsequent years.

Perhaps most importantly, The Sun said the current season “Made baseball a safe investment,” and “Made baseball contracts legal.”

The final point was overly optimistic, as contract jumping and player raids were a serious detriment to the league throughout its 11-year run.

The Sun also picked the league’s first all-star team:

Pitchers:  Charles“Bullet” Rogan, Monarchs, Bill Drake, St. Louis Giants

Bullet Rogan

Bullet Rogan

Catchers:  George “Tubby” Dixon, Chicago American Giants and John Beckwith, Chicago Giants

First Base: Ben Taylor, Indianapolis ABC’s

Second Base: Bingo DeMoss, Chicago American Giants

Third Base: Bartolo Portuondo, Kansas City Monarchs

Portuondo

Bartolo Portuondo, all-star third baseman

Outfield: Jimmie Lyons, Detroit Stars, Cristobal Torriente, Chicago American Giants, and Hurley McNair, Kansas City Monarchs

Utility:  John Donaldson and Tank Carr, Kansas City Monarchs.

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.

Such Clanging of Bells and Blowing of Horns has never been Equaled in Athletic Park”

24 Feb

From the formation of the Cuban Giants as the first professional black team in 1885 until the establishment of the Negro National League in 1920 there were many attempts to form an organized league; and numerous advocates for the idea.

Lester Aglar Walton, editor of The New York Age, believed the color line was borne solely out of “the white man’s fear in open competition,” but also understood that the situation was not likely to change.

Lester Aglar Watson

Lester Aglar Watson

In 1911, Walton thought the conditions for starting a league were right, were right based on a three-game series in June—the Chicago Leland Giants traveled to St. Louis for a three-game series with Charles Alexander Mills’ St. Louis Giants:

“The figures, giving the attendance at the three games played, are interesting and furnish those who have been agitating the organization of a colored baseball league much cause for jubilation.  They are now enthusiastically pointing to figures to back up the assertion they have been making all along that a colored baseball league would pay;  also that the fans would give it their loyal support.”

Charles Alexander Mills,

Charles Alexander Mills

The Freeman described the atmosphere at the first game:

“The Chicago Giants entered from the south entrance, headed by Captain Pettis (William “Bill” “Zack” Pettus), and followed closely by the entire squad, clad in blue caps and white uniforms.  The contrast was rich.  At the site of the Chicago boys the fans cut loose, and such cheerings in respect would be fit for a king.  Ten minutes later Captain (Richard Felix (Dick) Wallace and his squad emerged from the club house, all in a quick step, and when they came in view of the vast throng such clanging of bells and blowing of horns has never been equaled in Athletic Park.”

Bill Pettus

Bill Pettus

Walton noted that the opening game, played on June 21, drew 2,200 fans.  On the same day in Cincinnati, just 700 attended a Reds game against the St. Louis Cardinals.  The following day 2,500 hundred watched the two teams play, and about 2,600 attended on Friday.  The St. Louis Browns, playing the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday and Thursday at Sportsman’s Park, drew smaller crowds both days:

“It should not be overlooked that the fans turned out in goodly numbers to see the St. Louis Giants and the Chicago Giants on week days.  On Sundays it is not unusual for the St. Louis Giants to play before 5,000 people.  It is, however, generally admitted that strong colored teams are good Sunday attractions, but the difference of opinion has invariably come up over the question of whether the fans would put in their appearance in sufficient numbers on week days.

“What is also considered significant by those who favor the formation of a colored baseball league is that with few exceptions the crowds were composed of colored people, which proves conclusively that members of the race will support colored clubs when they put up a good article of ball.  The same can be said of white fans, and quite often, for instance, in greater New York, more whites attend baseball matches between colored clubs than colored.”

Walton said it was always understood that New York and Chicago could support a member club in an organized league, but there was “doubt as to whether devotees of the national game in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Louisville etc…would turn out in sufficient numbers to ensure the players a nice check when payday rolled around.”  The series, he said, erased some of those doubts:

“Cincinnati, Louisville, Baltimore and other cities considered can make as good a showing as St. Louis.  Furthermore…these cities have but one big league team, while St. Louis has two, a condition which it is claimed, would argue in favor of the respective colored teams securing a larger white patronage.”

The St. Louis Giants swept the three-game series—winning all three in the bottom of the ninth inning; including a 2 to 1 victory behind “Steel Arm” Johnny Taylor over “Smokey Joe” Williams in game two—Taylor also won game one in relief.

The line scores from the three games

The line scores from the three games

Despite the enthusiasm, three excellent, well–attended games, and the resulting optimism as a result of the attendance in St. Louis during three days in June of 1911, an organized black league was still nearly a decade away.

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.”

“A Historical Account of a Great Game of Ball”

5 Mar

The headline above appeared in 1907 above an article written by Frederick North Shorey in The Freeman regarding a series between Andrew “Rube” Foster’s Leland Giants and Mike Donlin’s All-Stars “an aggregation composed of such noted players as Mike Donlin, Jake Stahl, Jimmie Ryan and Jimmy Callahan, probably the best semi-professional team in the country.”

Shorey said the series at South Side Park “exceeded in interest to the people it attracted anything that took place between the White Sox and Cubs last fall (1906 World Series).”

Rube Foster beat the Donlin All-Stars 3-1 in the first game, allowing only three hits:

“Rube Foster is the pitcher of the Leland Giants, and he has all the speed of (Amos) Rusie, the tricks of a Radbourne, and the heady coolness and deliberation of a Cy Young.  What does that make him? Why, the greatest baseball pitcher in the country; that is what the best ballplayers of the white persuasion that have gone up against him say.”

Rube Foster

Rube Foster

Foster was so important to his fans, Shorey said:

“If it were in the power of the colored people to honor him politically or to raise him to the station to which they believe he is entitled, Booker T. Washington would have to be content with second place.”

The Chicago Tribune said of Foster’s domination of the All-Stars:

lelandsvsdonlins

Back to the series, and back to Shorey:

“While the all-stars were confident in their ability to win, several of the old players, including Mr. Donlin himself, who have known of the prowess of Mr. Foster…knew that it was by no means a certainty…but they had hopes that the colored team behind him might do something to undo the efforts of the twirler.

Mike Donlin

Mike Donlin

Shorey said the all-stars were over matched:

“The colored men set a new pace for base running, while foster’s cool, deliberate pitching was too much for the old-time players on Donlin’s team.  Both teams put up brilliant fielding games.”

Foster pitched in four games in the series; he won all four.

David Wyatt–who had been a teammate of Foster’s with the Chicago Union Giants in 1902, and who in 1920 was asked by Foster to help draft the constitution of the Negro National League—also wrote about the series in The Freeman:

“All the baseball critics in the city were out to look the Lelands over, many under the impression that they were overrated.  The most interested of the number was Mr. Comiskey, owner of the white Sox…After witnessing the first game the white sox boss said if it were possible he would have annexed the signature of at least three of the boys to contracts, and he was so enthused over the fast, snappy work of the Lelands that he had his world’s champions to lay over one day in Chicago to watch the boys play.”

Wyatt had higher hopes for “Baseball as the common leveler” in general and the series specifically:

“There was no color line drawn anywhere; our white brethren outnumbered us by a few hundred, and all bumped elbows in the grand stand, the box seats and bleachers; women and men alike, all whetted freely with one another on the possible outcome of the series, the effect it would have upon the future of the negro in baseball, the merits of the different players etc…”

Foster’s heroics, Wyatt’s hopefulness, Comiskey’s words and Chicago’s enthusiasm were, of course, not enough to change the status quo; regardless of the “Great game of ball,” played at South Side Park in that 1907 series, the color line would remain intact for four more decades.

David Wyatt

David Wyatt