1923 Pierce Giants of Oakland: At Pierce Field, in Richmond California
(Left to Right): Charles Reid, Richards, Harold “Yellowhorse” Morris
Gerald Early is often quoted, stating that: “There are only three things that America will be remembered for 2000 years from now when they study this civilization: The Constitution, Jazz music, and Baseball. These are the 3 most beautiful things this culture’s ever created.” Early jazz and baseball once had a symbiotic relationship; a musical relationship that no longer exist in today’s modern era.
And what we know about Steve Pierce‘s Pierce Giants of Oakland is both unique and minimal. We know that they staked a claim on being the Colored Champions of Northern California. We know that the twenty-one year old Harold “Yellowhorse” Morris got his start there, under the tutelage of manager Chet Bost and owner Steve Pierce. We know that “Yellowhorse” Morris went on to be a starting pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1924, and held the same job for the Detroit Stars in 1925.
1923 Pierce Giants of Oakland: Harold “Yellowhorse” Morris
We also know that Steve Pierce bought the Detroit Stars from Tenny Blount, after a successful run as the owner of the Pierce Giants of Oakland. These ‘known knowns‘ create the foundation for the unique and minimal tales of the Pierce Giants of Oakland legacy.
1923 Pierce Giants of Oakland: Chet Bost and Steve Pierce (owner)
When we take a look at jazz as an purist art form, we realize that it takes the most significant cultural elements of our society and communicates them in musical terms. Jazz is a rift on musical notes that are known, yet easily improvised on, once the style and rhythm is set in motion. Baseball and jazz are two very important and significant cultural elements that are specifically American in their design, and jazz is rooted in baseball, based on the word “jazz” all by itself. This is not a story about Benny Henderson and his famed “jazz ball” pitch, even though the concept of a pitch being motivated by sound is something in need of much more historical exploration.
From the beginning of the Dead Ball Era of 1901 to 1919, to the Live Ball Era of 1920 to 1941, jazz music and the word, “jazz” played a significant role in this beautifully structured game known as baseball. Yet, the paradox that jazz music supplied to baseball, was an integral part of the that crafted the ‘seeing’, ‘feeling’, and ‘hearing’ of a game that took place among spectators and players of that sport, both on and off the field. Rousing conversations about improvised moments on the field of play connected the average fan to the rising and falling of rhythms, beats and tempos, which included base on balls, a hot double plays, or swinging away and connecting the bat to ball for a home run driven out of the park.
No one can be exactly sure when the word “jazz” and baseball became synonymous with one another, even though some have theorized that it all began in 1912, with a pitcher named Benny Henderson, who threw a pitch called a “jazz ball“. If the truth be told, the word jazz was used for multiple sporting events during the Dead Ball era, from soccer to football, boxing, and of course — baseball as well.
San Francisco Call, September 22, 1913
Dr. Leonard K. Hirshberg, of John Hopkins University once published an article in 1917 called, “Rest And Quiet The Sure Cure Of What Is Called Jazz Disease“, and attributed his findings by correlating a poem by Vachel Lindsay called, “The Congo: The Study Of The Negro Race”, that read like a Rudyard Kipling poem written by Dr. John H. Van Evrie. He defined jazz as sort of a delirium or ecstasy of excitement, that was the result of too much action and not enough rest. Jazz in Hirshberg’s eyes — was a malady that was only curable through substantial rest, a plain diet, plenty of sleep, and living a better way of life.
He also laid the sole blame of said jazz disease on “the Negroes“, who had all sorts of ‘traditions’, ‘superstitions’, and ‘fireside folk stories’ about King Jazz and the Jazz Band. Hirchberg, who often took liberties with the truth whenever there was sawbuck involved, was seemingly an expert on so many subjects — that he was eventually found guilty of being the brains behind a $1,000,000 mail fraud scheme, and spent four years in an Atlanta prison.
The Sunday Oregonian., September 17, 1911
In truth, for all the ‘jazz’ that Henderson had on his wobbly curve ball, Benny was his own worse enemy. He was an binge-drinking alcoholic. He was often involved in drunk driving accidents on more than one occasion. He even ran his car into The Cabin, a road house saloon located at the corner Fell and Stanyan streets, just outside Golden Gate Park in the Panhandle, in one of his drunken stupors while driving through San Francisco. Another time, he ran his car into a street car at the corner of Kearny St. and Market, escaping injury himself, but his passengers were not so lucky. For all intents and purposes, Henderson should have never been behind the wheel.
Henderson in reality was a great pitcher and at the same time a contract jumper, who preferred playing in Cy Moering‘s outlawed California State League; but he was also a raging alcoholic, who probably never should have played for Portland’s PCL team. Not because he wasn’t good enough. Because he was good enough. Henderson had once vowed that as long as Moering had a league to play in, that he would continue to play for Moering no matter what the consequence were. The city of Portland, at the time of Henderson’s tenure with the Beavers, was a den on iniquity between the years 1908 and 1914. There was no way Henderson could have remained on the “water wagon”, as he had promised McCredie he would, because vice was one of Portland’s main selling points and one of its biggest draws as a city.
San Francisco Call, August 13, 1912
Like clockwork, Benny Henderson went AWOL more than once from the Pacific Coast League. But he also went AWOL from the California State League. Cy Moering was just more forgiving than J. Cal Ewing or Walter McCredie. Henderson consistent drinking problem was much more unwavering than his ‘jazz ball’, or his ability to show up for training camp, or abide by his contract for the sake of his team for an entire season that he signed on for. The No Booze slash Water Wagon contract that McCredie had him sign had zero effect on Henderson’s alcoholic reality.
The Kearny Street accident better explains Henderson’s proneness to driving accidents, and how he came to call this wobbling pitch the jazz ball. This specific location is within walking distance of a place once known as “Terrific Street“, where West Coast Jazz was born. It was the left coast’s home to many of the original jazz greats like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. But the most significant patriarch of West Coast jazz was none other than Louis “Sid” LeProtti, who was Sid Purcell‘s and Sam King‘s top act at the So Different Cafe, located at 520 Pacific Street in North Beach area near Chinatown. “Sid” LeProtti was the most active jazz pianist on the Barbary Coast in its heyday, between 1907 and 1917. Purcell’s So Different Cafe was a hot spot for night life and over-the-top ‘entertainment’ that rivaled the likes of New York City, Chicago, and New Orleans when it came to high class but sometimes illegal and titillating raucous enjoyment.
Born the illegitimate son of Louis LeProtti, an immigrant dry goods salesman from Italy, and Amelia “Netty” Dangerfield, a seamstress from Oakland, California, “Sid” LeProtti grew up a biracial child abandoned by his birth father, learning the harsh realities of a segregated society early in life. Listening to music and playing classical piano became his solace. Falling in love with the piano playing styles of “Blind Tom” Wiggins” and “John William “Blind” Boone“, “Sid” LeProtti trained himself in both a variation of classical piano and the music of the day; Ragtime. By the age of twenty-one, LeProtti had earned the top billing spot at Purcell’s So Different Cafe, which was in direct competition with the Red Mill, also known as the Moulin Rouge. You also had Spider Kelly’s Saloon and Dance Hall, The Thalia, Izzy Gomez’s Cafe, Parenti’s Saloon, The Midway, Griffin’s, and The Hippodrome, that had their paws in everything from taxi dancing to the key rackets.
1915 — Spider Kelly’s Saloon and Dance Hall
1915- “Terrific Street” – Thalia’s, Spider Kelly’s, The Hippodrome, and The So Different Cafe on Pacific Street.
But it was here, on Terrific Steet— as seen in this 1914 video, in the So Different Cafe, the Texas Tommy dance craze was invented, and spread throughout the country like wildfire. This is the only known footage of the early Crescent Orchestra. The Texas Tommy was such popular dance that theater producers sent dancers West to learn the dance, and some of them like Al Jolson, hired dancers from the Barbary Coast to teach the Texas Tommy to their chorus lines for their stage productions back East. These Barbary Coast saloons, also known as “black and tans” clubs, catered to black and white patronage alike, and despite their limited number and size, were often frequented by the famous as well as the infamous of Bay Area society.
1914–Sid Purcell’s So Different Cafe, with “Sid” LeProtti and the ‘Crescent Orchestra’, which would eventually become the So Different Jazz Band.
In 1915, Sid LeProtti reorganized his Crescent Orchestra to become the So Different Jazz Band. From here, along with other details about Sid LeProtti’s time spent at Sid Purcell So Different Cafe in the heart of the Jackson Square, we can see how West Coast jazz was taking shape, ala leaning towards a New Orleans flavor. New Orleans was called Crescent City because the original town-the Vieux Carré, was built at a sharp bend in the Mississippi River. The fact that “Sid” LeProtti named his first band after ‘Crescent City’, also known as New Orleans, points to what influenced his musical talents, even though they were steeped in West Coast African American culture.
The Oakland Sunshine, March 20, 1915
1915 — The So Different Jazz Band
(Left to Right): Clarence Williams, Benjamin Franklin “Reb” Spikes, Adam “Slocum” Mitchell, Louis “Sid” LeProtti, Gerald D. Wells, Peter Stanley.
At the turn of the 20th century, they referred to early jazz as ‘barbarous noise for a degenerative peoples’, because this was the new sound of African American culture, rising up during the first Great Migration, and it was being spread throughout the United States by way of railroad from Coast to Coast, courtesy of your local Pullman porters including Purcell and King. The Oakland Mole, or course was the terminus, or “end of the line” for all passengers headed West.
The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe rail yards roundhouse was located in Richmond, California. Pierce Field was owned and operated by Steve Pierce, and the grandstand on the baseball grounds, once stood between Macdonald and Nevin Avenues just west of First Street, — and were located near Atchison Village Park where the St. John’s Apartment complex is located today. The Pierce Giants of Oakland were very well known throughout the entire state of California and barnstormed locally in the Bay Area, Sacramento and Napa regions, and well out of those regions, as far South as Los Angeles.
By 1917, jazz was well rooted in every day American culture, not only as a word, but as a relationship with those who listened to it for its entertainment value and expression of the unspoken trials and tribulations of being human, in a world on the brink of humanistic collapse. The world was at war with itself, and the tavern life offered an escape from the inevitability of a relatively short life span that left the average man dead by the age of 48.
From 1914 to 1917, the war in Europe raged on to what seemed to be no end in sight. “Sid” Leprotti’s So Different Jazz Band eventually left Sid Purcell’s So Different Cafe, but kept the band’s name in spite of their departure from Purcell’s. Preserved records on the life of “Sid” LeProtti’s indicate that on his World War I Draft Registration, he and his jazz band were working at the Portola Louvre Restaurant, a much classier cafe in downtown San Francisco. Located at Powell and Market, the Portola would bring LeProtti even higher recognition in the world of music and social standing in the West Coast jazz community.
1915-Portola Lourve Restaurant
LeProtti was making jazz waves all over California, playing clubs all along the Coast, whenever he could get a paying gig. Baron Long’s Tavern, on 108th and and Central Avenue in Watts, was one of the places that “Sid” Leprotti worked continuously, along side a young dancer named Rudolph Valentino, the “tango pirate“, and his rowdy partner, Marjorie Tain. Long’s Tavern was a Los Angeles area based ‘black and tan’, opened by Long for the purpose of catering specifically to early Hollywoodland’s elite performers, local politicians, and ne’er-do-wells. It was located in a nearby unincorporated area, so alcohol could be served around the clock. This was a era when Long’s Tavern was frequented by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Lottie Pickford, Jack Pickford, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Harold Lloyd and many others who went looking for a good time and good music.
From 1907 to 1926, Watts was a hotbed of unsavory politics, within this predominately all-white community, that was run on bawdy entertainment, bootleg whiskey, and bad decisions. In 1917, Sid LeProtti created a sensation on the Hollywood nightclub scene, by playing the yet unpublished Jelly Roll Morton song, “The Crave“, which caused a major rift between these two musicians. The public at large preferred the LeProtti version of the song to the Morton improvised version of his own work. The Cadillac Cafe on Fifth and Central Avenue in Watts, the old stomping grounds of Morton, was one the many haunts that LeProtti played to an overwhelming jazz following, that were both black and white, so these two men crossing paths while playing in the Los Angeles proper was not uncommon.
1917- Jelly Roll Morton Outside The Cadillac Cafe (Left to Right): “Common Sense” Ross, Albertine Pickens, Jelly Roll Morton, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Eddie Rucker, Mabel Watts.
California Eagle, August 18, 1917
It was also in Los Angeles that LeProtti found and married his wife, Mayme Golphin. Both “Sid” and Mayme had been previously married, and this was the second go around for the both of them.
One year and one month after “Sid” LeProtti registered for the draft in 1917, he would be inducted into the U.S. Army in Hawaii. He and his band mates, those who were either drafted or who had enlisted, were attached to the 25th Infantry Regiment as their resident jazz band. They never spent a single day at Schofield Barracks, but instead their living arrangements were quite exclusive and unique. LeProtti’s rank was “Musician 3rd Class”, five days after arriving from Los Angeles to Hawaii. His permanent living assignment was at the Alexander Young Hotel in Honolulu.
The Roof-Top Garden at the Alexander Young Hotel, one-third of an acre in extent, became one of Honolulu’s most fashionable social venues, in part by the jazz scene that flourished there. During WWI, the Army occupied the entire second floor of the hotel. Even though the Roof-Top Garden venue was great, the war took its toll on the So Different Jazz Band, and most of the musicians ended up going their separate ways after joining the military.
After his tour of duty ended in the South Sea island chain, Leprotti returned home, without a band, and without a job. There were gaps left in his return home, and his fellow band mates had left for the East to replace other musicians who had left to fight the war in Europe, never to return to the West Coast. With money he had saved, LeProtti opened up a shoe shine stand on the corner of Grove Street and University Avenue in Berkeley, and worked as a full time boot black while rebuilding the So Different Jazz Band. Working here and there as an ‘ad-hoc’ pianist, whenever he could, allowed a new So Different Jazz Band to develop from scratch.
“Sid” LeProtti gave Curtis Mosby, Russell Masengale, Ashford Hardee, and Evelyn Joiner their first early breaks in 1922 in the West Coast jazz scene, long before they made big names in the jazz world for themselves. Evelyn Joiner was a phenomenally accomplished entertainer and singer, and very little is known about her, except that she traveled and worked in an ‘all male’ jazz band. Curtis Mosby’s Blues Blowers were legendary, and can be seen playing in the films, Josef Von Sternberg’s 1929 “Thunderbolt” and King Vidor’s 1929 African-American movie musical “Hallelujah“, starring Nina Mae McKinney.
Healdsburg Tribune, September 12, 1922
Healdsburg is actually where this jazz and baseball story begins. The East Bay location of Sid’s Shine Shop was located on Grove Street and University Avenue in Berkeley, and Purcell’s Cafe in the West Bay located on Pacific Street on the Barbary Coast, are both respectively 70 miles from these locations on either side of the bay, heading North on the King’s Highway — once you’ve crossed over the water. At this time in history, Healdsburg has a predominately white population, located in the heart of Sonoma County, consisting of orchard farmers who provided locally grown goods to both sides of the Bay. Even though segregation is a cultural phenomenon, their fear of African American culture was almost non-existent, especially when to came to money, music, and baseball.
1923 – Healdsburg Prune Packers
Back row (Left to Right): Al Bidwell, Bob Weston, Bob Vellou, L.J. Hall, Quim Seawell Middle row (Left to Right): Harlan Remmel, Frank Meisner, Pep McDonald, Jim Shinn, Pop Artlett, Gus Smith, Ben Begier Front row (Left to Right): Red Corrick, Zad Vare, Chick Autrey, Husk Contade
The Healdsburg Prune Packers baseball team was organized in 1921, and headed up by former PCL Oakland Oaks pitcher, “Pop” Arlett. This was the era when “Babe” Pinelli, Lou Guisto, Carl Holling played for the Napa team, another steadfast Prune Packer rivalry. Like a lot of teams in the area, the Napans were known for hiring ringers when facing the Prune Packers. From 1921 through 1925, the Pierce Giants of Oakland had a standing invitation to play against the Healdsburg Prune Packers. There was always a big gate, and the Pierce Giants fan base from the East Bay often accompanied them to Healdsburg in groups as large as 400 people. The Pierce Giants of Oakland also traveled with a jazz band, and were highly sought after as a one-stop total entertainment value.
The Healdsburg Tribune-July 16, 1924
“Realizing that the game on the local baseball lot tomorrow is the toughest game of the season for them, the Pierce Colored Giants are reported from Oakland to be looking high and low for new playing material, of the proper brunette hue, to strengthen the team that is to line up against the Prune Packers.
So far the only definitive line on increased strength, however, is that addition of the So Different Jazz Band of the colored syncopationists that the Giants carry with them. It is the theory of the colored management that the proper sobbing note on the saxaphone[sic] at just the right moment will add strength to the bats of the dusky players, and that a curve ball thrown by a colored pitcher can be corkscrewed into unbelievable twist if it is urged by a raucous blast on a trombone.
These of course of are only theories, based on the old maxim, “Music hath charms” and it is doubtful if “Pop” Arlett and the Prune Packer aggregation will pay much attention to them. Healdsburg has twice defeated the Giants — one in a pitchers’ battle 1 to 0; the other time in a slugging match, 9 to 8, in 12 innings. It is the intention of the locals to make it three in a row, for nothing it to be gained by weakening the week before the Santa Rosa series starts.” — The Healdsburg Tribune, July 19, 1924
The deeper story that was not told here was the long standing relationship between former team mates and now opposing team leaders, “Pop”Arlett for the Healdsburg Prune Packers and Chet Bost of the Pierce Giants of Oakland, which reached back well over a decade when they both played for Elmhurst in the Oakland City Winter League. These two men were early pioneers of breaking the color line in baseball, who once integrated a team within a league, and now were engaged in the playing of integrated baseball with an all white team pit against an Independent African American team that traveled all over the state of California during the height of Jim Crow in 1920’s America.
When all is said and done, the story itself involves union vs. non-union musicians and the love of jazz, that was rarely witnessed outside of Terrific Street in San Francisco, West Oakland, or South Berkeley. The battle between the American Federation of Musicians Local 6 in the Bay Area and African American musicians, particularly those that played jazz, is legendary. The best way and sometimes the only way to see the So Different Jazz Band, was to attend a privately sponsored functions, such as a ‘lady’s improvement club’ function, — or a baseball game — where ‘union rules’ of employment for musicians did not apply.
Segregation was one of the strongest factors in where African American jazz bands could be heard or seen live. Even black and tans which operated outside of the laws on most occasions, did so based on the money to be made by the club owners, crooked politicians, and the elite upper crust of society who enjoyed jazz music so much, that the risk was worth the reward in the long run. There is no doubt that African American baseball spread the sounds of jazz all over the nation, and that jazz and baseball were intrinsically tied to one another, by hook and sometimes by crook. Being hard pressed when asking, ‘where has the music of baseball gone?‘, we know that jazz was once the music of baseball that lasted over four decades. The untold story on “How Baseball Gave Us Jazz” is that one where the Pierce Giants of Oakland took the So Different Jazz Band with them when they barnstormed rural California, spreading good will, good cheer, good music, and good baseball wherever they landed.
Interview with “Sid” LeProtti by Turk Murphy, including “The Crave“, (“the way Jelly showed me“). Film footage of the So Different Cafe on Terrific Street, Texas Tommy and Barbary Coast Dancers featuring the So Different Jazz Band.