Archive for February, 2018

Guys and Boys

February 27, 2018

The town barber shop looked something like this

As something of a follow up to the post on words meaning things, here’s an example of something along those lines that I remember.

Back where I grew up, the local barber shop was central to the cultural life of the town’s men. There were two in our town, one where a lot of the wealthier men in town went and another where the rest of the men hung out. My Grandfather was one of the “rest of the men.”

There was this big plate-glass window that said “Barber” and below it the alluring sign of ‘Flat Tops Our Specialty.” The door was to the right and the big red and white stripped barber pole was on the curb just in front of the door. You had enough room to open the door, but if the door was open, a passerby had to step into the street, so the door stayed mostly closed. There were two chairs to the left with those big handles that the barber pumped to raise or lower the chair, a strop on the right side (as the barber stood behind the chair), always a blue and white stripped apron slung over one of the arms. Behind were a couple of mirrors, a pair of sinks, a long cabinet top with all sorts of wonderful smelling lotions, razors, scissors, electrical clippers, a shaving mug, and various after shaves and hair creams. The smell was terrific. There was also this big machine that heated towels for those wanting a shave. The opposite wall had a long mirror so the man getting the hair cut could see what was happening, a line of three of four chairs, an old-fashioned end table like the one my Grandmother had at the end of the sofa. Hers held a lamp, this one held a bunch of hunting and fishing magazines, a couple of picture magazines like “Look,” and a ton of comic books that were at least a year old. Then there were more chairs and another end table with more magazines and comic books. Against the back wall was a tall chest that I never saw anyone open, but I supposed held the towels and other linens. On top was a radio and a noisy fan that oscillated back and forth in the summer (and interestingly enough I don’t remember where the heat source in winter was located). Beside it was a door that led to the back of the place. There was a bathroom and a storage place for mops, brooms, and a pail. It was, all in all, a wonderful place to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon.

I got to visit it twice a month, depending on the weather. My grandfather would go down weekly on Saturday, again depending on the weather, and spend most of the afternoon. My grandmother was probably happy to get him out of the house so she could do some cleaning and cooking and complaining to the neighbors. One weekend a month he actually got a haircut. Another one I got a haircut. Those were the two weekends I got to tag along. At least that way he had excuses to head down to the barber shop a couple of weekends a month. I was happy to go along. Initially I got to read all the comic books, but after a while I’d read them all, and all there was to do was listen to the men talk, which was great because suddenly I was one of the men.

Of course during ball season the radio was on. Most of the games were St. Louis Cardinals games, which was fine by the men in the shop, because most were Cards fans. Every so often the Dodgers played the Cards and it’s one of those games I most remember.

Jackie Robinson was playing, got a hit (don’t remember single, double, or what) and the announcer worried he might steal a base.

“That colored boy can sure run, can’t he?” one of the men allowed (all conversations approximated after all these years).

The rest of the crew agreed.

Ultimately Roy Campanella came to the plate which got the following comment, “He sure can swing it hard. Didn’t think a colored boy could swing a bat that hard.”

“Colored boy? I thought he was Italian.”

“Nope, he’s a colored boy too. I guess one of his folks, his dad maybe, was Italian, but he’s colored.”

“Huh. Didn’t know that. Well, is that Furillo colored too? He’s got an Italian name.”

“Nope, he’s a white guy.”

“Oh, so he’s an Italian guy.”

For the better part of twenty or thirty years that conversation stayed with me and I couldn’t figure out why. Just at odd times I’d remember it. Of course if Furillo or Campanella came to the plate it would jump into my mind, but even after both were gone I’d recall it from time to time. It took years, but I finally understood why.

My wife and I were watching some show on television, the Olympics maybe, and she mentioned how the announcers made a big show of pointing out the differences among the participants. One was a natural, another a grinder. And suddenly the above conversation came bubbling up to the front of my mind and back in the back of my brain a light went on. She’d not only triggered the occasionally persistent memory, but had given me the clue why it resonated after 30 or so years.

Listen carefully to the words used to describe Campanella and Furillo. One was a “colored boy” and the other a “white guy.” The difference is striking. Around where I grew up if you were white you were one of the “guys,” but the black men in town were “boys,” unless they were quite old, in which case they were “uncle.” As a kid it was simply normal to hear and think nothing of it. But as I aged I realized the very quiet, very simple, very subtle racism involved in those two simple words: boy and guy. No matter how accomplished the black man he was still a “boy” and the same accomplished white man was a “guy,” as in “one of the guys.” It also worked if the white “guy” wasn’t so accomplished.

A lot of the men in my town would have told you they had no problem with race, but would have used those words as distinguishing between a black and a white man. Others would have had no problem with it because they were pretty open about their opinions of race. I’ve never been quite sure which was the worst.

 

 

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Words Mean Things

February 22, 2018

Rube Foster’s Hall of Fame Plaque

Back when I was growing up there were, even in my small town, a handful of public accommodations. These included the waiting rooms at the local Greyhound Bus Station, the train station, a couple of town water fountains; things like that. There were, of course two of each. One said “Whites Only” the other said either “Colored” or “Colored Only.” It was normal where I lived.

“Colored” was an interesting word. It never specified which color, but we all knew. In the society my grandparents lived it was the polite word to use when discussing Black Americans. The impolite word began with an “N” and ended with an “R” and I’ll let each of you figure it out on your own. Even my Grandmother, who knew how to use it, let me know that “you don’t say that in town and you never say it to them.” The “them” was understood.

As I grew older the word changed. First there was Negro, then black, then African-American. I don’t use the latter much because I know a Joseph Mohammed whose parents are from Tunisia. He was born in the US and likes to remind a lot of us that Tunisia is in Africa and that he is, therefore, also African-American. Whatever is currently in vogue is probably better than the “colored” of my youth.

In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP) was formed. It used the word “Colored” proudly. It was a way to announce that “Colored” was not a word of shame.

All of which brings me to that noted revolutionary, Rube Foster. Did you ever think just how revolutionary Foster’s naming his league the NEGRO National League really was? No “Colored” for him. That was the word the white world used to describe Foster and his people. He would have none of it. He would choose the word to describe both himself and his league. The word Negro was around and in some circles coming into fashion. Foster stepped up to the plate (hey, this is a baseball blog after all) and slammed “colored” away in favor of a word that didn’t have the same stigma as “colored.”

He was somewhat alone in this. The other league that was formed to challenge the NNL was called the Eastern COLORED League. Foster hated the ECL because it challenged his control over black baseball, but he also didn’t like the name. None of this colored nonsense for Foster.

Today, baseball fans who think about the Negro Leagues (and there’s that word again, and it’s thanks to Foster) consider Rube Foster a great player, a fine manager, a league pioneer. He is all of those, but he should also be remembered as something of a revolutionary.

Big Whitworth

February 20, 2018

Richard Whitworth about 1916

Baseball is full of pitchers with short careers. Some are short because the guy wasn’t very good. Others are short, but have very intense periods of greatness. Hall of Fame pitchers like Dizzy Dean and Sandy Koufax fall into this category. For a handful of years they were truly outstanding then something went wrong. In Dean’s case it was an injury, in Koufax’s it was arthritis. Negro League baseball was no different from its Major League counterpart. One of the more prominent Negro League pitchers with a short, spectacular career that ended much too early was “Big” Richard Whitworth.

Born in St. Louis in 1895, Richard “Dick” Whitworth topped out at 6.5″ and 215 pounds, gaining him the nickname of “Big”. A right-handed pitcher he got to the Negro Leagues in 1914 with the Union Giants, one of the top teams in Chicago. He was famous for his fastball and almost, immediately drew the attention of Rube Foster of the American Giants, another major black team in Chicago. In either 1915 or 1916 Whitworth moved over to the American Giants (sources differ) and became, along with Frank Wickware, one of the team aces. For the rest of the teens he joined Wickware to dominate black baseball in the Midwest.

He was a strikeout pitcher who is one of several hurlers who are given credit as the predominant strikeout artist of the era. If his “stuff” was overpowering, and it seems to have been, he could also be wild, racking up a lot of walks to go with the strikeouts. But he was good enough that Rube Foster let Wickware head to the Detroit Stars while holding on to Whitworth. With Wickware gone, Whitworth understood his value was unmatched on the mound. He held out for a raise in 1919 and seems to have gotten at least a small one.

In 1920 he moved to Hilldale (a team that played in Philadelphia), where he helped found the Eastern Colored League. He remained there through 1921, then, his skills eroding, moved back to Chicago, where he had a couple more good, certainly not great seasons. He was through after 1925.

For Dean the problem was an injury, for Koufax, arthritis. For “Big” Whitworth it was a fondness for the bottle. From early in his career he was known to drink heavily. By the early 1920’s it was effecting his game. He was infamous for stepping under the stands before a game to take a few drinks before heading to the mound. There were rumors he drank between innings, but that was never substantiated (as far as I can tell).

He returned to St. Louis after his career was over and died in 1966.

As usual the question of how good was he cannot be adequately answered. His Seamheads numbers read 72 wins, 35 losses, a 2.56 ERA (133 ERA+), 461 strikeouts, 346 walks, and 249 earned runs given up in 877 innings pitched over 136 games. All that gives him 10.5 WAR.

As with the other Negro Leaguers I’ve looked at this month (Wickware and Barber) Whitworth had a drinking problem. Considering the problems facing black Americans in the 19-teens and early 1920s it’s frankly not surprising. What is a little surprising is how easy they were able to get booze after the Prohibition Amendment was passed. It seems that widespread ignoring of the amendment occurred in both the black and white communities. For a long time liquor was the drug of choice in baseball (both the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues) because a lot of good players like the three I’ve featured this month (and others like Jimmie Foxx and Hack Wilson in the Major Leagues) lost a lot of time to “demon rum.”

 

Barber, Berber, Barbour?

February 15, 2018

Jesse Barber, middle of the back row.

One of the better, but more unknown players in Negro League history was Jesse Barber. He was a fine outfielder who spent time playing, as was usual for a lot of Negro Leaguers, a lot of positions. Considering how much time I’m taking looking at various aspects of the Detroit Stars, it shouldn’t surprise you that he wandered through Detroit.

Jesse Bernard Barber was born in 1888 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Before starting this post I looked at The Baseball Bloggess blog. She has a Virginia-born project there that is worth reading over. It tracks players, both white and black, who were born in Virginia. Had she done Barber, there would have been no need for this post, but she hadn’t. It’s still worth it to go check her out.

By 1909 he was playing ball in Philadelphia. He started as a shortstop with foot speed and a decent glove for the era. He got the attention of the Chicago American Giants, who lured him away from Philly. He played a little at short, a little all over the infield, and finally settled in the outfield. As the Giants lead off hitter he set the table for such Negro League stalwarts as John Henry Lloyd (who replaced him at short) and Pete Hill. He remained with the American Giants through 1919, then moved on the Bacharach Giants (Atlantic City), Hilldale (Philadelphia), and the Stars before finally finishing up in 1925 back with the Philadelphia Giants.

The career was basically successful, but beginning in the late 19-teens he developed a “fondness for the bottle.” As one writer put it “he lost his batting eye” to drink. It plagued him throughout the latter part of his career and is partially responsible for his frequent movement in his later career. As with the post on Frank Wickware, I’ll point out that drinking was a significant problem for both Negro League and Major League players in the period.

Again, you have to ask “how good was he?” And again the answer is incomplete. Seamheads lists his triple slash line as .296/.349/.387/.735 over 549 documented games. He has 683 hits, 143 for extra bases (11 home runs), and 239 RBIs with 57 stolen bases. All that gets him 6.8 WAR (and again remember that WAR is calculated over only 549 games).

“So,” you ask, “what’s with the title to this little rambling?” Well, it has to do with the frequent disagreement with how he spelled his last name. Newspapers of the era tend to drift between “Barber” and “Barbour” seemingly at will. One census form gives it as “Berber.” Considering we have no idea how Barber/Barbour pronounced it, have no idea how literate the census taker was, how much he was paying attention, it’s not a bad garble of the name. But it still doesn’t solve the problem. But we do have his World War I draft card.

Barber’s World War I draft card from Ancestry

There it is written “Barber.” Solves the problem, right? Well, not exactly. He later signed up for the draft in World War II:

Barbour’s draft card for World War II (same source)

And whattaya know, he spells it “Barbour” here. Maybe he didn’t know which was right and started with Barber, then changed to Barbour when he kept seeing it in the papers. I don’t know, but it makes for an interesting sidelight into his life. It’s, in fact, this sort of thing that helps make the study of the Negro Leagues fascinating.

Whether it was “Barber” or “Barbour,” Jesse died in Connecticut in 1959. And for what it’s worth I couldn’t find a picture of his headstone to see how it was spelled.

As a quick aside, one of the early governors of Virginia was James Barbour of Orange County (which isn’t far from Charlottesville) and in 1974 Charles Barbour became the first black mayor of Charlottesville. Roosevelt Barbour was city assessor for Charlottesville, and there is a Barbour Street in the town. All that leads me to believe that “Barbour” was probably the original spelling. But don’t bet the farm on that.

Power Play

February 13, 2018

John Tenny Blount

Being head of a league has to be difficult. You have to make sure of scheduling, of player contracts, of all sorts of things. It was also true of the fledgling Negro National League. In 1925 something like a power play occurred that attempted to topple Rube Foster as head of the league.

As mentioned in the post on the Detroit Stars, ownership of the team belonged to John Tenny Blount, which is true, sort of. Blount was born about 1871 in Montgomery, Alabama and migrated north to Detroit. By 1919 he ran a major gambling establishment in Detroit and was heavily involved in the numbers racket. Some sources claim he ran it in the black neighborhoods of the city, others don’t want to go that far. In either case, he was fairly wealthy, a major player in the black community, and knew Rube Foster. Desperate to have a functioning team in Detroit, Foster approached Blount about running the team. He offered a set of his own American Giants (of Chicago) players, albeit older players, to help “seed” the team. Blount accepted and became “owner” of the Detroit Stars.

Here’s where it gets a bit murky and complicated. My wife assures me I can complicate even the simplest things (It’s a gift). It seems that Blount didn’t actually own the team, at least not in its entirety. Foster, having more money than Blount, seems to have held a controlling interest in the team while Blount acted as more of a general manager than owner. He ran the team locally, scheduled games, took care of paying players, looked for talent, but Foster would ultimately call the shots. By 1920, this arrangement was part of the newly formed Negro National League, which had a rule against one man owning two teams (“syndicate baseball”) so it had to remain under the table (or at least be winked at by other owners).

On top of this issue, the Stars played in Mack Park, which wasn’t owned by either Blount or Foster. John Roesink, who happened to be white, owned the stadium and charged rent, thus adding to the influence Foster had on the team (someone had to pay the rent). But that meant also that Foster could control the scheduling of games at Mack Park, not Blount. Further, Foster got, as booking agent, 10% of the gate. The contract also established 20% of the gate as the rent, leaving Blount with only 70% of the revenue for team expenses (like paying players). As something of a quick aside, Mack Park burned in 1930 and the Stars had to find a new stadium. By that point the ownership issue in Detroit had boiled over.

The complicated ownership issue in Detroit was bound to create riffs within the upper management. By 1925 Blount was openly complaining that Foster was slighting the Stars in favor of his (openly owned) Chicago American Giants. They were getting the best venues, the best dates, the best players, and the Stars were suffering. Blount, by now league vice president, complained openly to the other owners that Foster was playing fast and loose with the league money. He argued Foster was drawing more money than his salary allowed and should be forced to resign. Foster responded by offering to open his book for the other owners to look over and further offered to resign. A league meeting in Chicago renominated Foster for NNL president and the vote was unanimous. Then the owners stripped Blount of the vice presidential job. By this point even Blount knew he was beaten. One source calls the episode a power play on Blount’s part. It failed and the upshot was, as you should have guessed by now, that Blount lost any control he had over the Stars.

It was, other than the decline in Foster’s health, the greatest crisis the Negro National League faced prior to the Great Depression. Foster weathered it easily, but it did point out to the other owners the continued risk of any like syndicate baseball in the league. Blount went back to his other businesses and died in 1934.

The Man Who Beat Johnson

February 8, 2018

Frank Wickware with the Mohawk Giants about 1913

Frank Wickware was born the son of a janitor in 1888 in Kansas. It wasn’t the South, but it wasn’t exactly wonderful for a black American. The Populist movement was growing and thriving in Kansas. There was an element of Populism that believed in racial equality, but another strain that was virulently racist. Black Americans, many of which were freed slaves remained loyal to the “freedom party,” the Republicans and by the 1890s the racist strain of Populism, reacting to the continued support for the GOP by blacks, had gained superiority and a new phase of Jim Crow grew, in Kansas as well as in the American South.

In all of this Frank Wickware’s family moved to Coffeyville and he began playing organized baseball. In 1907 he joined a black team in Muskogee, Oklahoma and threw a no-hitter. That got him a gig with the Dallas Black Giants. He was successful and that success got the attention of Rube Foster in Chicago.

By 1910 Wickware was pitching for the Leyland Giants in the Windy City. Teaming with Hall of Famers John Henry Lloyd (shortstop) and Pete Hill (outfield) the Leyland Giants had a terrific season. Wickware went 18-1 (couldn’t find who beat him). The next season he moved with Foster to the American Giants (also of Chicago) and put up more good numbers.

For the next several years Frank Wickware enjoyed a nomadic life jumping from team to team, a not uncommon practice in the black leagues of the era. He finally settled in Schenectady, New York pitching for the Mohawk Giants. He remained through the 1914 season. There he found both a home and controversy. He was lured away during the season to pitch for the Lincoln Giants in a series against the American Giants (his old team). The owner of the Mohawks, obviously missing his best pitcher, swore out a warrant for Wickware’s arrest because he’d not paid his boarding bill in Schenectady. Wickware returned, pitched  and drove in the winning run, then was arrested (after the game of course). He was found guilty and fined (a teammate paid the fine).

While still with the Mohawks, he was contacted by a white minor league team in Rutland, Vermont. They were to play an exhibition against the Chicago Cubs and wanted Wickware to pitch it. He agreed, but the Cubs refused to play against an integrated team. In August 1913, his wife got into a fight with the Mohawks’ owner’s wife that resulted in the owner’s wife receiving a stab wound. Wickware’s wife was arrested.

All of that got him a ticket out-of-town, but not before he had a chance to play a barnstorming team led by Walter Johnson. The game went five innings before darkness made it impossible to continue. The Mohawks won the game 1-0 and Wickware was forever known in the area as “the man who beat Johnson.”

Between 1914 and 1918 he played for Foster’s American Giants again, becoming their ace. It was a new lease on his baseball career. He made the most of it by leading the American Giants in wins, ERA, and strikeouts for the period. He also found a new wife (If my wife knifed another woman, I’d look for a new wife too.). In 1918 he entered the Army but was still in Illinois when World War I ended.

Discharged, he moved to the Detroit Stars in 1919 with Foster’s blessing. By this time Foster was trying to start a new black league and needed a viable team in Detroit. Wickware was one of several aging American Giants that were sent north. He had a decent year there, then began a new nomadic phase of his career. His numbers were slipping, the black teams were in turmoil as Foster’s Negro National League was setting up shop and there were lots of teams wanting in and others wanting nothing to do with the NNL. So teams were looking for talent (as they always do) and aging stars were getting chances to improve their finances and their team prospects.

He hung on through 1921, had a brief comeback in 1925, but was essentially finished. There were allegations of too much liquor (a not uncommon allegation in both the Negro Leagues and the white Major Leagues), there was an allegation he shot a man in Harlem in 1925. He was freed when it was proved another player did the shooting. The boozing allegations continued (and somewhere along the line he picked up yet a third wife) and he had trouble finding work in baseball. His last record game was in 1930 for a Connecticut barnstorming team named for him.

After he left baseball he returned to Schenectady to settle down. He got in trouble for hitting his third wife with a stick and in 1948 was working at a nearby Army Depot. He was arrested for stealing a pair of boots and served four months in jail. He died in 1967 and is buried in Schenectady.

How good was Frank Wickware? Seamheads gives the following statistical line for him: 60 wins with 50 loses, an ERA of 2.84, 318 walks, 669 strikeouts, and 1027 innings pitched over 155 games (119 starts). That gives him 1.18 WHIP. They give him a total of 12.4 WAR. Those numbers are admittedly incomplete and Negro League WAR is frequently low due to the lack of games that are verifiable.

In the 2006 mass induction into the Hall of Fame, Frank Wickware was one of the pitchers considered. He failed to receive enough votes for election. But he could still say he was “the man who beat Johnson.” Not a bad legacy.

Frank Wickware’s final resting place from Find a Grave

 

The Stars

February 6, 2018

Stars logo

It’s February and that makes it Black History Month in the US so it’s time for my monthly look at the Negro Leagues. This time I want to begin by looking at one of the better, but more obscure teams, the Detroit Stars.

With the major migration of American black citizens to the North just before and during World War I, the American Midwest black population boomed, mostly in the major towns of the area. Detroit was one of them. There had been baseball, and black baseball in the area for years, but the city was never a noted hotbed of “colored” baseball. Chicago and Indianapolis were leaders  with the American Giants and Leland Giants (both of Chicago) and the ABCs in Indianapolis.

By 1919, Rube Foster was beginning to form the Negro National League. He had the teams in Chicago and Indianapolis willing to join. Kansas City was available. But there was no team in Detroit that was capable of playing at NNL level. Noted Detroit numbers man John Tenny Blount (known almost universally as “Tenny”) had the money, the clout in the black community, and the willingness to join Foster in creating a team that could compete in a major black league. Blount founded the Stars in 1919 and Foster was more than happy to help him.

With the American Giants stocked with talent, Foster agreed to “loan” Blount a number of good players including future Hall of Famers Pete Hill and Jose Mendez to form a talented team. The addition of players like Frank Wickware and Edgar Wesley made the Stars a formidable team.

Twice the team came in second, and once dropped below .500, but were never quite good enough to win. During the 1920s they added Hall of Famers Turkey Stearnes, Andy Cooper, and John Donaldson to their roster (Stearnes essentially replaced Hill, although it wasn’t exactly a one-for-one replacement).  Much of their problem was the inability to put all these greats on the field at the same time.

By 1931 the NNL was in trouble. Foster was gone, finances were drying up, the Great Depression, was killing attendance. The league folded after that season. Several of the teams hung on by barnstorming, but the Stars, despite being good, had never grabbed the attention of the town in such a way as to overcome all the problems. When the NNL failed, so did the Stars.

There were attempts to revive the Stars. In 1933 a new Negro National League was formed. The ABCs from Indianapolis moved to Detroit, adopted the old name, and failed after one season. They tried again when the Negro American League was formed in 1937, but the results were the same as 1933, one year and disbandment.

The Stars today, if they are remembered at all, are known for the great players that moved through their roster during their short existence. Never a top-tier team, they were competitive but that was all. It would take integrating the Tigers in the 1950s to reintroduce black baseball to the Motor City at the highest level.

RIP John Mahoney

February 5, 2018

John Mahoney (right) as Kid Gleason in Eight Men Out

Just saw that the actor John Mahoney died at age 77. Over a long and very successful career he played a ton of roles and always did them well. For the purposes of this blog he played manager Kid Gleason in the movie Eight Men Out. Mahoney did a great job as the manager of the 1919 Chicago White Sox who simply found it impossible to believe eight of his players, the “Black Sox,” would willingly throw the World Series. In many ways he became the most sympathetic figure in the entire flick.

RIP, John Mahoney

Green Cathedrals: A Review

February 1, 2018

Green Cathedrals cover

Haven’t done a book review in a bit, so here’s a new one.

Back in 1991 Philip Lowry did a wonderful book on baseball stadia titled Green Cathedrals. The religious reference is intentional. Then in 2006 he updated it with new info and new parks. It is the second edition I want to write about.

The book is simply an homage to ball parks. After a quick introduction the heart of the work is an alphabetical by city list of each professional ball yard. With each city is an array of information about each ballpark and each version of the ballpark (including several different versions of the Polo Grounds, as an example) giving dimensions, capacity, teams that called them home. There are specifics on the quirks within the stadium (like Duffy’s Cliff in Fenway) and comments about the surrounding area. A total of 410 ballparks are listed. Some of the information is sketchy on the older, 19th Century parks, but all in all there’s more available than anyplace else. Additional to the Major League stadia, there is also information of Negro League parks. These are not just the Major League parks that allowed Negro League teams to use them, but parks that were used exclusively by the Negro League teams. And of course there are pictures, some fairly standard, well-known views, others are much more obscure views.

The book, in both editions, is available a number of places on-line and the prices vary depending on whether it’s a new or used copy. The book is certainly worth the money if you’re at all interested in the fields on which the great stories of baseball were and are played out.