Negro League Baseball: African American Baseball, History And Archaeology

On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 PM,  just as game number 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s was about to get underway, an earthquake rated between 6.4 and 7.1 magnitude hit the Bay Area with a jolt that would not soon be forgotten. The Loma Prieta Earthquake, which took down the Nimitz 880 Freeway Cypress Street Viaduct upper level, would change the way this writer would look at history and baseball forever. 42 people in West Oakland lost their lives, 41 of them on that day. It’s been stated that there would have been many more deaths that day if it wasn’t for the World Series taking place between these cross bay rivals. Most people would be at home, either waiting to watch the game or listen to it on the radio. Game number 3 was postponed till Oct. 27, 1989. The A’s would sweep the series with in 4 straight games.

1989-Cypress_collapsed

Cypress Street Viaduct, Nimitz Freeway, West Oakland, 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake

It would be 25 years later when I was called upon to identify some information concerning the West Coast Baseball Association artifacts, and tell whatever history I could about them, and explain their existence as a league. The information on them has always been sparse at best, but even more so, because the history of West’s Oakland’s 7th Street had been ‘tanked’ long before Loma Prieta had occurred. The history that proceeded the WCBA and how they evolved was based on land that was taken through eminent domain, which reached back beyond the year of 1954, when the Oakland City Council decided that it would tank-doze a neighborhood of West Oakland’s Black Bottom, as part of its proposed urban community redevelopment and revitalization program. This urban renewal project would leave a long stretch of barren land, until the completion of the double decker Cypress Freeway opened in 1957. Worse of all, is would leave a gap in Bay Area baseball history.

Tank Demolition

Demolition of West Oakland neighborhood by the lowest bidder, using modified Sherman Tanks

Construction Of The Cypress Freeway

Future building site of the Nimitz Freeway Cypress Street Viaduct  exchange in West Oakland.

Cypress Freway Excahnge-1

The Double Decked Cypress Interstate 880 Freeway

I relish the experience of searching through old records, uncovering West Coast baseball action as it happened in the Bay Area from the late 1800’s through World War II. I’m often reminded, from time to time of how fast this community grew, into something that was phenomenal, and still to this day is very much misunderstood. The stories of 7th Street, the “Black Broadway” of the West, and its surrounding neighborhoods, formed a legacy most recently forgotten by the people who dwell there now. It is a vast journey that has taken a hold on my senses. I’m determined to share as much of this rich history as I can, for much of it is buried and slowly being uncovered. One of the many stories of West Oakland involves two very well known baseball players: Jimmy Claxton and Harold “Rowdy” Elliot.

Jimmy Claxton Story-I Wonder If He Remembered-2-22-1943

The San Francisco Spokesman, Sporting Spice column by Byron “Speed” O’Reilly,  February 22, 1934

When the Cypress Street Viaduct fell, the City of Oakland in its rush to rebuild the freeway after the tragedy that would known as Loma Prieta, had to take a step back in time when demolition crews found items from the Oakland’s historical past. Sonoma State University assisted Cal-Trans in what would come to be known as the Cypress Archaeological Project, as part of the plan to rebuild the 880 freeway exchange, and in doing so helped reroute a communal pathway which was much less obstructive. Together these two entities decided to jointly research and document over 500,000 artifacts that covered a 48 block area of new freeway construction. Over 2,500 archeological features were also uncovered from Oakland past history, of which 121 were determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

But sometime a plaque is not enough to tell one hundred plus years of history. It seems 7th Street was always a throughway for train traffic and a route for transportation.

Fourth & Sixth Ward-West Oakalnd Map-1878

I took the time to input just 9 members that lived in the Black Bottom and I mapped their addresses from their 1940 U.S. Census records. These men who had played in the Berkeley Colored League, had a huge connection to West Oakland based on two simple things; San Pablo Park and the Key System. The outcome of the results was fascinating. It created a small, tight cluster that explained a lot about social boundaries and how communities grow.

1) San Pablo Park

2) The Key System

The Key System Electric Train Transit

With the coming “revitalization” of West Oakland after World War II, and the decline of employment in the war industries located in the East Bay Area, a financial shift took place that would disconnect Berkeley from West Oakland. The history of East Bay baseball and the baseball stars that it had created, those who traveled between these two cities, would fight to keep that history alive, as best they could. One of the leading families in West Oakland, that very few people remember or talk about, was the Bercovich family, who owned E. Bercovich & Sons furniture store, on the corner of 7th and Franklin in the heart of the Black Bottom. Bercovich & Sons furniture teams sponsored many great baseball players, during their time on the West Oakland, and here is the short list:

1) Curt Flood

2) Vada Pinson

3) Frank Robinson

4) Willie Stargell

5) Kevin Maas

6) Rickey Henderson

7) Dave Stewart

8) Randy Johnson

9) Joe Morgan

10) Don Wakamatsu

11) Charlie Beamon

13) Bill Rigney

14) Jackie Jensen

15) Ed Fernandes

Sam Bercovich and Curt Flood-1955

Sam Bercovich and Curt Flood

Curt Flood’s Civil Rights activism was a big part of creating Baseball’s Free Agency advocacy that still stands today. His lawsuit would soon bring the “reserve clause” in Major League Baseball contracts to a slow, but eventual grinding halt. Sam Bercovich stood by Flood, when others would not. Even when he began to receive death threats. Bill Staples had mentioned to me in passing, after reading “Negro League Baseball: Lefty Gomez vs. The Berkeley Pelicans“, how he would like to know more about Dudlely Jones of the Berkeley Pelicans. I can tell him that Dudley graduated from the same high school as Curt Flood, Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, and Bill Russell.

Dudley Jones-McClymonds High School-Mar. 30-1933

The San Francisco Spokesman, Sporting Spice column by Byron “Speed” O’Reilly,  March 30, 1933

Sometimes through eminent domain- land is lost, and within that loss, so is history. Eventually, after years of contract negotiations and barren soil, BART would replace the ‘A line that ran down 12th Street from East Oakland through West Oakland and on to Emeryville connecting Berkeley and Oakland. In order to do away with so much of the 7th Street and West Oakland’s history, a huge swath of homes were demolished for the purpose bettering the community. What this actually did for many years, in retrospect, is conquer and divide the Oakland and Berkeley African American communities, upending their history which had been created since the late 1800’s and went well into the early 1960’s. In doing so, this new construction destroyed the a huge legacy belonging to a multitude of cultures with connected experiences yet to be explored. Yes, this modern mode of transportation which exist today, buried almost a century of African American history that intermingled with Chinese, German, Swedish, Portuguese, Japanese, Irish, Greeks, Slavs, French and Mexican, laid under asphalt and concrete, until that fateful day on October 17, 1989.

BART And 7th Street-construction-1968-bottom-photo_5a

7th Street West Oakland BART raliway construction in the 1960’s

Esther’s Orbit Room is the last remaining jazz and blues club holdout in the Black Bottom. Back in the day though, the spot to be was Harold “Louisiana Slim” Jenkins Place. Slims Place began with a liquor store in 1934, one  month to the the day prohibition ended. Rumor had it, that between him and Charles E. “Raincoat” Jones, the bootleg whiskey they’d sold during the tough times of the Depression would no longer be required to make a living wage, which made the boys in Road to Perdition Boys in Emeryville quite upset. Slim and Raincoat were a big part of their distribution chain. 7th Street was a place where anyone who was anyone hung out, and that included President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose yacht the USS Potomac still sits in the Oakland Estuary, and has become a major tourist attraction in Jack London Square. Slim Jenkins had operated his liquor business’s on 7th Street long before he built his World Famous Slim Jenkins Night Club.

Slim Jenkins Liqour Store Ad-1-18-1934-ii

The San Francisco Spokesman, Jan 4, 1934

Slim Jenkins Place 2-7th Street

Slim Jenkins Place circa 1950’s

Map Legend Of West Oakland

Map of West Oakland circa 1940’s

I do realize that I talk about teams, leagues, and early African American baseball players that most people have never heard about, and that is because they all dwelled in locations far West of Kansas City and St. Louis. These untold tales about men most have never heard of are the ones that piqued my interest most of all, and by their shear design, they are stories that must be told for future reference and further research into their lives, and their particular narratives. That’s why I joined SABR. Because without a Jimmy La Blanc or Dudley Jones, there would have never been a Curt Flood of Ricky Henderson. When the African American baseball stories are crushed by newly laid concrete or paved over with hot asphalt, the story of Ed and Sam Bercovich, one a founding father of West Oakland baseball and one of baseball’s greatest philanthropist, who then passed on his legacy to his son–we also find that their stories will be buried in the vault of time.

Jack London lived in West Oakland in the late 1800’s, and his novel “Valley Of The Moon” was set in West Oakland. The California League began in West Oakland in 1879, and played at the park called the Oakland Baseball Grounds, located between 13th and 14th Streets, with cross streets of Kirkham and Center. The music created on 7th Street is being heavily documented as we speak, but the baseball of West Oakland is being forgotten. I sometimes wonder how Robert Louis Stevenson felt when he wrote Silverado Squatters, because there was a town in California called ‘Silverado’, even though it was an abandoned mining town that lived through the ravages of the quicksilver rush of 1873.

The Harlem of The West Coast was found on West Oakland’s 7th Street, and so was a whole lot more history. I’m not sure if 7th Street was where “Rowdy” Elliot outed Jimmy Claxton for being ‘black’ and not ‘white’, while having him removed from the Oakland Oaks pitching staff, but from the story related by Speed in his column, I’d have to say it was more than likely the truth, than just some far-fetched story for the sake of printing gossip. J. Cal Ewing was a staunch defender of all-white baseball for the American public, and was known to have stated his feelings in the newspapers about African Americans sportsmen, playing the sport we all love so much. I hope to write many more stories about baseball in the West–very soon. Baseball has many layers and stories. I just hope it doesn’t take another major earthquake to unearth more items that substantiate facts pertaining to this lost history, or another 25 year break in the lull to create a real interest in them.

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