Norman O. Houston: Lost and Found

Norman O. Houston, pictured at far right, with his teammates from the Shasta Giants baseball team
1912 Oakland Giants — In uniform– Top Row: Left to right: bench sitting: (1) Chet Bost, (2) Maisona, (3) H.Smith, (4)unknown, (5) Nelson Watson; Manager, (6)Durgan, (7) Richardson, (8) White, (9) Norman O. Houston — Bottom: Left to right: ground sitting: (10) Herb Clarke, (11) Hilary “Bullet” Meaddows (UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

This photograph was located deep in the archives of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance collection. It was an odd place to find a flawless image of the 1912 Oakland Giants. Access to such images, that are over 100 years old, of African American baseball teams, are very rare — and they are usually in very poor condition. Upon closer inspection, Norman O. Houston can been seen sitting to the far right in the top row.

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Norman O. Houston

This Dead Ball era photo is one of a few that shows the Oakland Giants in their home uniforms, taken at the State League Park, which was once located at Grove Street and Fifty-Seventh Street, behind Idora Park. Today, it is where Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute sits, behind Dover Park, in the Bushrod neighborhood of North Oakland.

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San Francisco Call – February 27, 1909

Idora Park Oakland 1910
Idora Park – Oakland Public Library, 1910

The Freeeman-Hilary Meaddows 5-25-1912
The Freeeman – May, 25, 1912

From his humble beginnings, Houston was destined for greatness. Houston was born in San Jose, California to Oliver and Lillian Houston, and lived part of his childhood in the Lower Bottoms of West Oakland. The larger part of his youth was spent in the Brooklyn Township of Alameda county, which is now considered Oakland. His father, Oliver, was a Pullman Porter, and also worked as a waiter at the Hotel Vendome. The story goes, in Houston’s own words, that he was the “godson” of the Sparkling wine baron and “Champagne King of California”, Paul Masson, based on Masson’s relationship with Houston’s father.

Brooklyn Alameda County
Map of Oakland and Brooklyn – 1885

Hotel Vedome San Jose
Hotel Vendome – San Jose

After graduating from Oakland Technical High School, Huston went on to study Business Administration U.C. Berkeley. While attending U.C. Berkeley, Houston became one of the key outfielders for a string of African American baseball teams that left a Bay Area legacy, which led up to the founding of the West Coast Baseball Association. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Oakland Giants were not the first African American baseball team to step foot on the diamonds of the East Bay, West Bay, and Central Valley;  but historically, they were the most recognizable local African American team, and most widely accepted, that paved the way for other African American teams to follow.

Under the management of Nelson Watson, who gathered the best players in the East Bay, the Oakland Giants became a formidable team, that traveled throughout Northern California, with games scheduled through Spalding.

Dutch Ruether-Mill Valley Record, Volume 14, Number 37, 4 October 1912
Mill Valley Record – October 4, 1912

Dutch Ruether-Marin Journal, Volume 50, Number 41, 10 October 1912
Marin Journal – October 10, 1912

At the age of 19, playing for the Oakland Giants, Huston faced Walter “Dutch” Ruether in the batter’s box. “Dutch” was one month older than Houston, and born in Alameda, California, but spent his life in the West Bay. Ruether went on to play ten years of professional baseball, in both the National and American leagues. It was not uncommon, at that time, for an African American baseball team to play the foil to their opponents; the team to beat above all other teams, during the early part of the 20th Century. These type of race based contest created the largest gates, and were advertised accordingly. More often than not, winning or losing a game decided one’s fate, when it came to the return trip home — as well as an extended invitation to return to play another day.

As the Oakland Giants morphed into the Lynne-Stanley Giants, under the leadership of Chet Bost, winning became a way of staying in the public eye. Huston played outfield for Bost and Lynne Stanley from 1913 to 1914. The year 1915 remains a mystery, and the disappearance of the Lynne-Stanley Giants for one year ushered in their 1916 return as the Oak Leaf Club of Oakland, where Houston was once again seen playing the outfield with a large majority of the former Oakland Giants team.


Oakland Tribune-Oak Leafs-2-13-1916-pg.30
Oakland Tribune – February 13, 1916

At the age of 24, Houston was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War I, where he became a “Regimental Personnel Adjutant”.

Norman Oliver Houston United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918-ii
Norman Oliver Houston – World War I Draft Registration Card

Portrait of Norman O. Houston in his World War I uniform
Portrait of Lt. Norman O. Houston in his World War I uniform

After the war had ended, Huston gave baseball one more shot, returning to play with so many others he had played with before, with the addition of a few new team members, like Carlisle Perry and Jimmy Claxton. At the age of 27, this would be the last baseball team that Houston would play with.

Shasta Giants 1919-20
Shasta Limiteds – Left to Right Top Row: (1) Owner Tod Graham, (2) Jimmy Claxton, (3) Norman O. Houston, (4) Goldie Davis, (5) Carlisle Perry, (6) Gene Cooper, (7) Chet Bost, and the (8) Trainer Green. Left to Right Bottom Row: (8) Fisher, (9) Eddie Jackson, (10) Hilary “Bullet” Meaddows, (11) Billy Woods, (12) Brown, and (13) Vaughns.

Unlike most African American baseball players whose history fades into anonymity, this single photograph of the 1912 Oakland Giants gives us a larger picture of Norman O. Houston’s life, which may have never had been connected before now. Leaving baseball to younger men, Houston pursued on the journey of creating the largest African American owned and operated insurance brokerage in the western United States, along with his partners, William Nickerson Jr. and George A. Beavers Jr. His experience as a clerk for the Board of Fire Underwriters before serving during World War I, led him to leave the Bay Area and head to the boom town called “1920’s Los Angeles“.

By 1920, 15,579 African Americans lived in Los Angeles. Twenty years later the City of Angeles had a Black population of 63,774, more than Denver, Oakland, San Francisco, and Seattle combined.“[1]

Black Los Angeles” was a gold mine of opportunity for the young Houston.

The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, once the largest black-owned insurance company in the western United States, represented more to policy holders than a mere insurance company. They provided African Americans with life insurance, retirement plans, savings bonds, annuities and mortgages when white-owned banks would not lend to them. In part, they are responsible for the expansion of African American growth in the West, based on their ability to both lend and insure African American owned businesses and properties.

Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company
Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company – UCLA Library – 1925

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California Eagle – 1925

From its earliest beginnings, the founders of Golden State Mutual and their executives, documented the Company’s history and African Americans in California making history, using every form of known media, — including photography, recorded sound, moving images and films, and an array of artwork. At one time, Golden State Mutual maintained one of most extensive and comprehensive African American artwork collections in the United States, which was eventually sold off in 2007, just prior to the Great Recession of 2008, and near the close of its final days in 2009, — after an eighty-four year run, focusing on the African American community.

Executives from the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company and Reverend Ralph Abernathy-1964
Norman O. Houston with Rev. Ralph Abernathy (UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

MLK and Houston-ii
Norman O. Houston with Martin Luther King Jr. (UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

Los Angeles City Councilman Tom Bradley, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Norman O. Houston-1969
Norman O. Houston with Tom Bradley and Jesse Jackson (UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

Congressman Andrew Young and Norman O HoustonCongressman Andrew Young and Norman O. Houston (UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

Jesse Owens visits the Home Office of the Golden State Mutual
Jesse Owens visits the Home Office of the Golden State Mutual – June 18 1935 (UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

Norman O. Houston and Joe Louis-1945
Norman O. Houston and Joe Louis – 1945 (UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

Lena Horne visits the Home Office of the Golden State Mutual Life
Lena Horne visits the Home Office of the Golden State Mutual – 1953 (UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

Portrait of Norman O. Houston-ii

The amount of people connected to Norman O. Houston is so vast that all of them cannot be covered here. The same can said for his partners, William Nickerson Jr. and George A. Beavers Jr.

Norman O. Houston Park
Norman O. Houston Park Dedication – (UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

We owe a debt of gratitude to those men who founded that company in the 1920s,” said Fergerson, who grew up in Watts. Golden State Mutual “was not only an insurance company. It was a social, political and historic institution that brought jobs and proper insurance to the black community.” [2]

Norman O. Huston Park-2

Neatly nestled on the edge of Baldwin Hills, is the Norman O. Houston Park, near Ladera Heights. The majority of people who gather there daily probably have no idea who Norman O. Huston was, or that he had a deep, endearing love of baseball; or that he was a native of Oakland, California. Houston rarely talked about his life and times in the world of baseball, or who he played with or against. Quiet, reserved and honorable, Norman O. Houston’s legacy of baseball lived on in every youth baseball team that the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company sponsored throughout its existence.

Personal Portrait of Norman O. Houston – KABC Radio 79 – April 30 1966

1) “On June 1, 1900, the first census of the 20th Century counted 2,131 Black Angelenos”, California African American Museum Staff writer, June 1, 2019

2) Lifsher, Marc:California regulators seize struggling insurer Golden State Mutual Life“, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 1, 2009






Negro League Baseball: San Pablo Park And The Berkeley Colored League

San Pablo Park

San Pablo Park

This is the story of San Pablo Park.

When we think of the Negro Leagues, we rarely consider how difficult it was to secure a park for league play. My friend, Bill Staples, sent me a zip file on the Oakland Pierce Giants, which was a tremendous gift of generosity. It actually placed some things in perspective for me. In it, there was a “Community” article, in the Oakland Tribune, dated December 26, 1975. It was called “Still Throwin’ ’em Out“, by Richard Spencer, of the Oakland Tribune’s Richmond Bureau. It was a grand article about the East Bay Area pitcher extraordinaire, Charles Rodgers Reid Sr. also know as Charlie Reid.

This story is not about Charlie Reid though. I promise I’ll get to him in another blog soon enough. I mentioned him in “Negro League Baseball: The Oakland Pierce Giants“, as one of the founding participants in the Berkeley Colored League. In the a article, “Sitll Throwin’ ’em Out”, Mr. Spencer happens to mention that Charlie “was an original member of the San Pablo Park Boys team in Berkeley, in 1914″.

BG-San Pablo Boys Win Over The Emeralds-3-15-1915

Berkeley Daily Gazette, March 15, 1915

The importance of this statement for me, validated a few articles I found concerning the development of San Pablo Park and the surrounding neighborhoods, which nurtured a community of baseball fanatics, through good times and bad times.

San Pablo Park Ad-San Fransico Call-11-28-1906-Page 5

Mason-McDuffie advertisement San Francisco Call, November 28, 1906

When I was a kid, there were two teams that everyone want to play for, based on their sponsorship.

One was Mason-McDuffie and the other was Golden State Mutual. It wasn’t until I became older that I understood the power that these two well established companies had when it came to financial support of teams they sponsored. Mason-McDuffie of course is a real estate company that has been around since 1887. The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company was started by William Nickerson Jr. and was a black-owned and operated. If you want to understand how powerful the Mason-McDuffie ties are to the baseball community in the East Bay, Debbie DiMaggio, a distant cousin of Joe DiMaggio works for them selling luxury properties in the San Francisco Bay Area.

From the onset, in 1906, shortly after the 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco, there was a mass exodus from San Francisco to the East Bay. Oakland and Berkeley, which happened to be farm land for the most part, would soon be placed up for sale as residential areas, safe enough to raise large families and conduct day-to-day business. The East Bay became a safe haven for those who feared another major earthquake and subsequent firestorm in San Francisco. The farm land that stretched from the Carquinez Straits down to San Jose became prime property. 200,000 people made an exodus from San Francisco and only 50,000 ever returned.

San Francisco Earthquake 1906-Cropped

San Francisco 1906 Earthquake Damage

Perhaps you didn’t buy a San Pablo Park Lot because you had to have a house NOW. DON’T WAIT. WE’LL BUILD FOR YOU…”, said the advertisements, for the early tract homes of South Berkeley.

San Pablo Park Ad-San Fransico Call-12-2-1906-Page 44

Mason-McDuffie advertisement San Francisco Call, December 2, 1906

5 Bedroom Home- The “Swiss Chalet”-San Pablo Park Tract-1215 Ward Street

1907 “Swiss Chalet” type home built by Mason-McDuffie near San Pablo Park, located on Dohr Street

The real estate development of the San Pablo Park tract, initially ran all the way from Park Street to San Pablo Avenue, and beyond. It was a huge tract of land, that had to be advertised and sold in more than one phase.

San Pablo Park Ad-San Fransico Call-12-16-1906-Page 40

Mason-McDuffie advertisement San Francisco Call, December 16, 1906

Even though the San Pablo Park development offered a “park”, centrally located between phase one and phase two, the actual 15 acre ‘San Pablo Park’ that was advertised, was still only a dirt lot and and it would remain a dirt lot for years to come, until the land itself was donated to the City Of Berkeley by Mason-McDuffie in 1910. Many bond measures for the development of the park failed consistently between 1906 and 1912, and it would take a couple of more years before build-out action was taken, making land improvements for the park that was initially promised to the people of the San Pablo Park tracts.

Oakland Magante Hold Busines Meeting-San Pablo Park-12-28-1912-Page 8

San Francisco Call, December 28, 1912

In 1912, The Oakland Baseball Association leased the land at San Pablo Park for its own use, but no new developments ever came of it. It would be another year before the final decision was made to make the park a place beyond its ‘sandlot’ diamond status by the Berkeley Playground Commission. By 1913, park development got underway. A rough cut baseball diamond and a field house was built. The Berkeley Playground Commission of 1913, in its June minutes, included recommendations that “San Pablo Park be put in first class condition that it may be used at its earliest possible moment as a recreation center”. [1]

In an article from the Berkeley Daily Gazette, dated February 13, 1914, called, “San Pablo Park To Be Approved At Once“, the Berkeley City Council adopted and approved a plan to make San Pablo Park one of the most “approved” parks in the state of California. A.G Freeman, Chairman of the Berkeley Playground Commission, along with his Secretary, Mrs. W.H. Marston, presented detailed blueprints accompanied by colored maps of the future look of San Pablo Park, and the City Council voted unanimously, expenditures in excess of $20,000 extra to compliment the already existing $6,000 playground fund, with an extra $1,000 for planting of trees and shrubbery. [2]

Plans for the improvements of San Pablo Park were designed by Professor J.W.Gregg, of the landscaping and gardening department, of the College of Agriculture at the University of California at Berkeley. He had recently become an associate professor, and Cal Berkeley was one of the five colleges in the nation, at that time, that offered courses and a degree in Landscape Architecture and Floriculture design. San Pablo Park was in the hands of one of the best park designers in the nation.

By the 1930’s the neighborhoods surrounding San Pablo Park would become predominately African American, and would become the home field for all Negro League games played in the Berkeley and Oakland area. With two diamonds, league play was continuous years around, and both summer league and winter league flourished for many years in the East Bay. It was also the home field for the Berkeley High Yellow Jackets baseball team since its inception. Just recently, the Tim Moellering Field on Derby Street was constructed at a cost of $4.5 million dollars for the Berkeley High Yellow Jackets baseball team to play on, and the days of the BHS Yellow Jackets taking home field at San Pablo Park are no longer seen there. Yes, people in Berkeley take their baseball seriously. Yes, almost 100 years to the day, San Pablo Park has been replaced as the home field for the Berkeley High Yellow Jackets, which is hard to believe, based on the social dynamics that it created in the East Bay.

I stress this point because you’d have to know who some of the Berkeley High Yellow Jackets who played baseball at San Pablo Park.

1) Red Kress

2) James “Chick” Hafey

3) Augie Galan

4) Merv Connors

5) Billy Martin

6) Ruppert Jones

All of these men began their baseball careers at San Pablo Park. 98 years of collective baseball history has passed through San Pablo Park. Of course, there were many more baseball stars that found their way to San Pablo Park’s baseball diamonds; some of them during the era of Jim Crow, like Jim Tobin, and some of them well after. The development of the Berkeley Colored League brought the park recognition and prominence that extended beyond the East Bay area. As a matter of note, Chick Hafey, Charlie Reid and Jack LaLanne all grew up together on on Spauding Avenue in Berkeley, a few blocks from San Pablo Park, and they were all a part of each others lives during the early days of San Pablo Park’s notoriety.

The current home price for a home that is located near San Pablo Park, according to the most recent Zillow comparables, is $841,000 to $950,000, and they have not changed all that much since I was a kid playing baseball at San Pablo Park. San Pablo Park has a noble history, and it is one I hope to share with others while I blog about the Berkeley Colored League and their baseball exploits. To understand the history of West Coast Negro League baseball, especially that of Northern California. it’s important to understand the social dynamics of the people that lived there and built the history from the sandlot up.

San Pablo Park  plaque READ

San Pablo Park Historic Plaque

1) Five Views : An Ethnic Historic Site Survey of California.; The History Of Black America: Historic Sites: San Pablo Park, Berkeley, Alameda County

2) San Pablo Park To Be Approved At Once, Berkeley Daily Gazette, February 13, 1914, Page 1 cont. page 6