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.

1916_0213_oakland_giants

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

 

 

 

 

 

Where they cut their teeth: The Oakland Giants of Grove Street Park

Oakland Giants-ii

1912 Oakland Giants

This amazing photograph of the Oakland Giants tells a very unique story in itself. The kids in the photograph differ in race from the men in the photograph. Upon closer scrutiny, we can see the make up of the team, and who played on it; at least on that day. Not much is known about this African American team, other than they were a sight to see when they took the field, and were crowd pleasers to one and all who enjoyed the pleasure of watching them take up the ball and bat.

Their home field was Grove Street Park, which was located on  in Oakland, California on 57th & Grove Street, which is now called Martin Luther King Jr. Way.  There, they met such teams as Berkeley Independents, Burlingame,  the Brock & Lott team, the Clarions, Hirschfields, the Monarchs, the Pennant Bars,  Mill Valley, and Watsonville. Grove Street Park was once solely leased out by Cy Moreing  of the California State League from the Stockton area, who once owned the Oakland franchise of the California based league. Moreing accessed the park from the Oakland Township for the specific reason of creating a strong outlaw baseball league in 1908. Cy was also a business man first and foremost, and knowing how to draw a crowd and make a buck, shared the space with the Oakland Giants, allowing African Americans to play on a field against the wishes of J. Cal Ewing of Pacific Coast League.

Grove St. Park-Cy Moreing-SFC-Mar. 12, 1912

San Francisco Call, March 12, 1912

Moreing knew best how to get under Ewing’s skin, and by letting African American baseball players on any field that was shared with a white teams was certainly the best way to get Ewing’s goat.

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Cy Moreing, Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide -1907, pg. 227


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Left to Right: Top Row: A. Thomas, unknown, N. “Tick” Houston, Herb Clarke, Nelson Watson (manager), Chet Bost, Richardson, unknown, Perry.
Bottom Row: Hillary “Bullet” Meaddows, White.

The Freeeman-Hilary Meaddows 5-25-1912

The Freeman, May 25, 1912

The Oakland Giants were owned and managed by Nelson Watson, born in Salina, Kansas in 1882. Growing up in the town where Lee Jeans had opened their first factory, young Nelson was probably a keen observer of industry, and eventually moved West to seek his fortune in West Oakland. He worked in a barbershop as a porter in Swan’s Market, and eventually became a Ships’ Carpenter’s helper on Mare Island, which was known as the first base of operations protecting commerce of the United States, building the earliest model submarines for the United States Navy, and also the Navy’s very first Aircraft Carrier. His leadership was instrumental in building a winning team.

Nelson Watson

The Giants, better known as the Oakland Giants are making quite a record  this season, having lost only one game out of the nine played. The club is composed of several high class ball players who rank the best on the coast.

Clarke, captain of the club, has carefully gotten together and drilled the team to play a nice article of ball, and with himself and such god[sic] men as Bost, Martin, and Houston, he has an infield which is very hard to beat.

Chet Bost, his fast shortstop, is a valuable man to the club as he has had league experience, having played short for the Occidentals of the Utah State league last season. He is one of the club’s heavy hitters and the speediest base-runners, as he is hitting 320.” -The Oakland Tribune, June 27, 1912

Some of the other team members pictured, like B. Martin played on the Elmhurst team, in the Oakland City winter league. “Tick” Houston played on a integrated team in Fruitvale called the Oakwoods the season before joining the Oakland Giants. And a very young Hillary “Bullet” Meaddows pitched as well as caught for the Oakland Giants, and this is where his three decade career in baseball really began. Most of the cities that the Oakland Giants played in would have been considered “sundown town”, and traveling these out-of-the-way distances by car, train, or ferry to and from places like Watsonville, Petaluma, Mill Valley or Burlingame would have been an added adventure along the California Coast on El Camino Real, internally along “State Route” Hwy 99, or across the San Francisco Bay by boat or ferry.

The “State Highways Act” was passed, taking effect on December 31, 1910, so most of the roads being constructed at that time were fairly new, or old very old toll roads that were made of  dirt and at best had gravel in some places — and the towns along the way were rural and small. Oakland was a major city compared to a lot of agricultural towns that the Oakland Giants played against in 1912, and seeing African Americans men play baseball was a ‘novelty’, especially when their baseball skill sets were above average. The Oakland Giants travels were reminiscent of Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, because this was California still in its youth, where the King’s Highway went from one mission town to the next.

What the city of Oakland looked like…

Oakland Rug Works 1910

1896_recommended_state_highway_system_for_California

….was not what the California road system looked like in 1912.

California road in May 1910

This type of road travel was ‘pre Green Book’ era by two plus decades, and the Oakland Giants stepped far away from the safety of West Oakland to play baseball is towns that were considered a great distance from their home base. The 1912 season was referred to as the “Bumper Crop of Alfalfa Baseball” for the bush league teams of the San Francisco Bay Area and outlying regions from Watsonville to Bakersfield.

In 1910, Oakland had a population of 150,174, and an African American population of just a little over 3,000, coming in only second to Los Angeles. Oakland was filled with immigrants, fleeing starvation in Europe, made up of mostly foreign born men, Alameda County and the surrounding area was virtually a paradise for anyone who had agricultural skills, or just someone seeking an opportunity in the industrial sector. Jack London’s “Valley Of The Moon” best explains the struggles between the newly arriving immigrants and native-born peoples of the Bay Area, who were constantly competing in the job market, and the everyday struggles they endured in this very diverse landscape called Oakland.

Baseball was an escape from those daily struggles. and teams like the Oakland Giants filled the absence of the defunct California State League of 1910, and kept the game of baseball afoot.