A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

With the passing of Muhammad Ali, I’m taking a break from many other things that are pressing and important to reflect on life and the journey all great men take to master the  Art of Sportsmanship. A picture that I’ve held in my personal archives for sometime, needs to be shared with one and all.

Often times, we see what we want to see in a man, and how that man impacted the History of Sports.

 

Zach Clayton-Ali_drops_Foreman-1975

Muhammad “The Greatest” Ali vs. “Big” George Foreman. “Rumble In The Jungle”, in  Kinshasa, Zaire, Africa. Oct. 29, 1974. Photo courtesy of Box Rec.

 

I often follow the trail of boxing that might eventually lead to baseball, and this picture is worth more than a thousand words. “The Rumble In The Jungle” has been called the greatest sporting event of the 20th Century. With 20 seconds left in Round 8, Ali begins with a flurry of punches, starting with a clean left jab, and what the announcer referred to as a “sneaky” right hand. Ali fends off Foreman’s bearish advance with another quick left-jab, and delivers another jaw snapping right-cross. In less than a second, Ali hit Foreman with another short, power-shot right hand for good measure. Foreman wobbles. His legs are leaving him, and he leads with his chin from this point forward.

Ali land another hard right to Foreman’s jaw for good measure, which clearly hurts Foreman, and there is no turning back now. Ali executes a 1-2-3-4, left-right-left-right combination that floors “Big” George Foreman in the Eight Round, with eleven seconds remaining in the round.

Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman (Highlights)

 

Zach Clayton-RUMBLEinTheJUNGLE

Zach Clayton, George Foreman, and Muhammad Ali, “The Rumble In The Jungle”. Photo courtesy of BoxRec.

 

Pause…

The man who steps int to the frame to give Foreman the count, referee of this highly publicized prize fight is none other than Zachary “Smiley” Clayton, the former Pennsylvania State Athletic Commissioner. This particular battle between two giants was one of the many bouts that Zach Clayton refereed in his illustrious career as a professional ref.  In 1949, Zachary M. Clayton was the first black man to receive a referee’s license with the state of Pennsylvania. By 1952, Zach Clayton was the first black man to referee a heavy weight title fight. That fight was between Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles.

 

Zach Clayton-800px-Muhammad_ali_trevor_berbick_Zach_Clayton_Referee_02-02-12

Trevor Berbick, Zach Clayton, and Muhammad Ali, Dec. 11, 1981, Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre, Nassau, Bahamas. Photo courtesy BoxRec.

 

In a bush league ballpark, the ring built over second base, Ali waddled out to meet the fists of Berbick, an amiable Jamaican by way of Nova Scotia, whose only promise was not to kill his former idol, unless by accident.”-Bernie Lincicome Chicago Tribune

Ali’s career ended in a ballpark, and Zach Clayton was there to see the unanimous decision delivered by the officiating judges. Zach Clayton was there to witness Ali’s regain his status as Heavy Weight Champion of the World, and to witness his final fight with Trevor Berbick.

For the record, Zach “Smiley” Clayton was a man of many talents, and it all began with baseball.

Born Leroy Watkins Clayton on April 17, 1917 in Gloucester County, Virginia, Zach “Smiley” Clayton was destined to play professional sports. He began his baseball career in 1931 at the age of 14, with the 1931 Santop’s Broncos, and ended up playing with the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants in 1932, at the age of 15. He again played for the Bacharach’s in 1934, when they shifted from the Independent Negro League to the Negro National League. In 1935, “Smiley” moved his skill sets to play 1st Base for the Chicago American Giants. He skipped a year of play, then by 1937, he returned to play with the Chicago American Giants, as they shifted to the Negro American League.

He disappeared from the baseball scene till 1943.

Pause…

His sporting skills extended beyond baseball.

After careful research, I found out that Zach “Smiley” Clayton, also began a separate but equally astounding career as a point guard with the New York Renaissance basketball team. He played with the “Rens” from 1936 to 1943. During this same period, he also played with Harlem Globetrotters, the Washington Bears, and won two World Professional Basketball Tournament championships. Lost in the archives of history, using the formal name of “Zachariah“, he led the Rens to a 1939 World Championship of Professional Basketball title. In 1943, he led the Washington Bears to another World Championship, along with stars like that included Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, William “Pop” Gates, William “Dolly” King, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, which played a ‘perfect’ season with a record of 41-0. In 1989, Clayton was enshrined into the New York City and Philadelphia Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Winning the World’s title, the Washington team performed a feat that NO PREVIOUS WINNER HAS RECORDED. They finished the 1943 season with a perfect record having won every one of their 41 starts. THIS IS THE FIRST TIME SINCE THE TURN OF THE CENTURY THAT A PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL TEAM HAS ENJOYED A SEASON WITHOUT A SINGLE DEFEAT.” —Leo Fischer, Sports Editor, Chicago Herald-American

 

Zack Clayton-New York Rens 2

Zachariah “Zack” Clayton, one of the greatest basketball players of the Black Fives Era. Photo courtesy of Black Fives Foundation.

 

Fadeaway: The Team That Time Forgot – ABC News

 

The New York Rens professional basketball team, 1939.

The New York Rens professional basketball team, 1939. (Right to Left) with Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, Zach Clayton,  Eyre Saith, Clarence Bell, William Gates, John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs, and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper and “Wee Willie” Smith. Photo courtesy of Black Fives Foundation.

 

Washington Bears, 1943

The 1942-43 Washington Bears, winners of the 1943 World’s Championship of Professional Basketball. Left to right, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Charlie Isles, William “Dolly” King, John Isaacs, William “Pop” Gates, Clarence “Puggy” Bell, Zach Clayton, Robert “Sonny” Wood, and Jackie Bethards. Photo courtesy of Black Fives Foundation

 

 

The Montreal Gazette-3-20-1946-ii

Zach Clayton of the Harlem Globetotters, The Montreal Gazette, March 20, 1946

 

 

The Montreal Gazette-3-20-1946-i.jpg

The Montreal Gazette-3-20-1946-iii.jpg

 

 

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame ranked Zach Clayton sixth in the 2016 HOF Early African American Pioneer Nominations, along with Cumberland Posey, Jr.

 

Jumping back to 1943, Clayton re-entered the baseball scene and joined the New York Black Yankees of the Negro National League, playing for them until 1944. There was a period during the 1940’s where Clayton also played for the Budweiser Barons as a 1st Baseman and a Catcher.

Clayton, Zack [standing far right Charles Cooper standing center]_BPA001X2019400000024_Ronal Auther

Zach Clayton (Standing, far right) with the Budweiser Barons, circa 1940’s. Photo courtesy of John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

Charles “Tarzan” Cooper also played with Zach on this industrial league team.

 

Image of Zack Clayton posed on the baseball field in batting stance-Budwesier Barons Baseball ClubCareer-1940s

Zach Clayton at practice for the Budweiser Barons. Circa 1940’s. Photo courtesy of the John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

 

Clayton also played with the Chicago Brown Bombers of the The United States League, Brooklyn Eagles, and the Brooklyn Royal Giants.This was during the first half of the 1940’s.

Clayton last attempt with professional baseball was in 1946, playing Catcher for the Oakland Larks, in the West Coast Baseball Association.

Smiley Clayton

Zach “Smiley” Clayton, Oakland Larks, 1946. Photo courtesy of the Richard T. Dobbins Collection, Judith P. Dobbins. African American Museum & Library at Oakland.

 

Clayton was paid $200.00 a month, and played  the entire season with the Oakland Larks. It was his final days in baseball, and he wanted to make the most of it.

 

Oakland Larks Baseball Club baseball player payment ledger

Oakaland Larks Baseball Club baseball player payment ledger, page 60, 1946.  Photo courtesy of the Richard T Dobbins Collection, Judith P. Dobbins, African American Museum & Library at Oakland.

 

WBCA Oakland Larks vs. S.F. Sea Lions Score Card.pdf

West Coast Baseball Association, Oakland Larks vs. S.F. Sea Lions Score Card, Oakland Larks Lineup. Photo courtesy of the Richard T. Dobbins Collection, Judith P. Dobbins. African American Museum & Library at Oakland.

 

He moved back to Philadelphia after the 1946 season ended and became a fireman.

 

Image of Zack Clayton (far right) dressed in police uniform-1940s

Zach Clayton in firemen uniform. Photo courtesy of the John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

 

 

While he was employed as a full time Fireman, with the City of Philadelphia Fire Department, Zach learned the fine art of refereeing Boxing. By 1956, Clayton had earned the rank of Lt. of the Philadelphia City Fire Department.

From 1949 to 1984, Zach Clayton garnered a career totaling 219 bouts as a referee and 16 as a judge, including the Heavyweight Championship title fight between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott, on Sept. 23, 1952.

 

Clayton, Zack [L-R Ted Strong, Zack Clayton, Williard Jesse Brown, Jack Matchett+Bonnie Serrell]_BPA001X20

Image of Clayton pictured with members of the Kansas City Monarchs (Left to Right) Ted Strong, Zack Clayton, Willard Jesse Brown, Clarence “Jack” Matchett, Bonnie Clinton Serrell. Photo courtesy of the John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

This is the only picture I’ve ever seen of Zach “Smiley” Clayton, out of uniform, smiling like there’s no tomorrow. Zach Clayton left us on Nov. 19 , 1997, leaving behind this lost legacy few will remember.

Greatness comes in many forms. Ali was “The Greatest” of all time, in his own right. Sometimes, greatness gets lost in the Milieu of life’s judgements and inconsistencies. How a baseball career begins or ends often leads to these judgements and inconsistencies.

Zach “Smiley” Clayton stepped beyond such things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Negro League Baseball: The Reid Factor; Mel Reid-Part II

“Well, sometimes I think I will, …yes, and sometimes I think I won’t…sometimes I think I will,…yes, and sometimes I think I won’t. Sometimes I believe I do and sometimes, and then again I believe I don’t. Well, looked at the clock,…the clock struck one,…he said, “Come on daddy, have a little more fun”,…yes, we rollin’, …we rollin’ on time. ” –Wynonie Harris-“Around The Clock Part 1 and 2

Whenever i hear that song, I think about Mel Reid and Reid’s Records in Berkeley, California.

Reid’s Records went through any number of musical distribution incarnations over the years as it struggled for its own survival among the commercial-retail chain record stores and the larger independents record stores. When Tower Records, Wherehouse and Leopold’s sought to sell commercialized ‘race records’, they saw an unstoppable profit margin in a virtually untapped national market of considerable size and means. I’m showing my age now, because Leopold Records has been replaced by Amoeba Music, when Leopold Records closed its doors in 1996. Amoeba Music is only a few minutes walking distance from People’s Park in Berkeley. For this reason, a legacy of legendary folk music came out of the East Bay, and the record store’s location in reference to People’s Park, and artist that came out to record their songs in Berkeley, also became synonymous with the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s. Berkeley was ground zero for a lot of exciting things that we take for granted today.

(note to reader: There’s a great video in the first link about Leopold Records of Joan Baez at Leupold Records in 1993, doing her impression of Bob Dylan song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”,…and her impression of Bob Dylan also. She nails it, and she does it with love. For all you Joan Baez fans, I’ve always loved the 1965 BBC version)

As an example, the Community Memory Board was located at Leopold Records in Berkeley, and it was the first electronically accessible bulletin board system in the United States.

I’m not sure whether I should give the CMB credit for the early ethernet cafés which would eventually develop into internet cafés (ala SF Net with a large bit of Berkeley in tow) or the fact that this early concept was used to help develop the World Wide Web, but I can tell you that the CMB was one single, coin operated machine, and it was one of a kind (at least for a while). Critics say that the Community Memory Bulletin Board System is responsible for the shaping of the way we use personal computers, an also the way the computer industry is shaped today. Some say Berkeley, California is where the origins of ‘social networking‘ all began. What is not known about Berkeley that lays within the counter-culture movement, is how deep it’s record industry roots and music recording industry go.  Or how the West Coast as a ‘whole’, operates in conjunction where the history of new technology and how it applies to the recording artist are concerned.

We often look toward Los Angeles, Nashville, or New York when we think about the music or recording industry.

We never think of Berkeley.

Reid’s Records was founded in 1945, and was the first African American record stores West of the Mississippi. It was the first record stores I ever shopped at when I was a kid. It’s founder, Mel Reid was very much a renaissance man, who had his ups and downs, while his multiple career sporting fame cleared a pathway for him to become a leading businessman in the Berkeley community. That same professional sports career is often overshadowed by Mel’s ventures in the music recording industry, as a music promoter, who’s many business exploits connected him throughout his life, with some of the most interesting array of musical superstars that ever graced the stage.

I’ve only spoken briefly about Mel Reid in the past as part of Yellow Jacket duo, but the Mel ReidJohnny Allen Yellow Jacket Duo is only a small part of the Mel Reid story.

Mel Reid was much better known for his music acumen than his sporting acumen, which is fascinating because he played both professional baseball and football at a time when such a combination was unprecedented. Reid was pre-Bo Jackon and pre-Dieon Sanders, when it came to the baseball/football double punch year around professional. Few people beyond myself know about his career in sports. I doubt that most of them know Mel played both football and baseball, and and at the same time tried to create a name for himself in the music industry. Little is known about either of his sporting careers among sports aficionados, because a crossover from one to another was a rare event in those days.

Mel played for many teams in the Bay Area, and among them were the Oakland Larks (1946) (baseball) of the West Coast Baseball Association, and the Oakland Giants (1943194419451946) (football), the San Francisco Clippers (1947) (football) and the Hawaiian Warriors (1948-QB) (football) in a quote-unquote “semi”-professional football league of the “highest caliber’ known as Pacific Coast Professional Football League that existed under the GNFA.

Mel is one of those people who’s family legacy is connected with the Berkeley Colored League, as the nephew of Charlie Reid. Thomas Reid Jr., was the brother of Charles Reid of the Oakland Pierce Giants fame.

Melvin Reid was born in 1918 in Berkeley, California, to Thomas (Jr.) and Reba Reid. Melvin Reid was the oldest grandchild of Thomas Sr. and Virginia Reid. He was a handsome child and was often photographed with his aunts and uncles that close to his age.

According to the 1940 U.S. Census, Mel was living in his parents house on Acton Street at age 21.

Mel was an all-star athlete at Berkeley High School, as well as a star halfback at the University of San Francisco. He also spent a couple of years with the California Eagles semi-pro baseball team.

 

Ralph Pearce wrote a wonderful article called, “Looking Back: California’s Negro League“. I love the photograph in the article, because it not only has Johnny Allen of the Oakland Larks in it. It also has Foy Scott, who was another great East Bay Area baseball player. The ‘Ed Harris’ in this photograph, is the same Ed Harris who was the business Manager of the Oakland Larks. According to the Oakland Lark’s financial ledgers, Mel Reid was paid $275 per month to play for the Larks, which was a substantial amount of money in 1946. ‘Ike Thompson’, of course, is the same Ike Thompson that sat on the Board of Directors for the Oakland Larks and was also the Manager of the 1940 California Eagles.

Mel’s former wife, Betty Reid-Soskin, helped him start the Reid’s Record business back in 1945, when as a young couple, they began a family-owned and operated business in the basement of their small, but adequate dwelling on Sacramento Street, in Berkeley, California. These days, Betty Reid Soskin is better known as the oldest living National Park Ranger in the United States, who heads up the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond, California. During WWII, Mel also spent his time working as a playground Director at San Pablo Park, and at night in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond. He’d pick up work wherever when ever he could.

 

Mel’s football career began in 1943 at the age of 25 with the Oakland Gaints. By the age of 27, while starting in the back field as a Halfback for the Oakland Giants (Mel would eventually play quarterback for the Hawaiian Warriors by age 30, towards the end of his football career), Mel decide to go into the music business and never once looked back. 1945 was one of Mel’s most heartbreaking years, but his drive and ambition never waned. By enlisting the help of his uncle, Paul Reid, who was a DJ on the radio program “Reid’s Record’s Religious Gems”, a weekly religious music hour was developed and produced for KRE, and from this Mel and Paul built a financially productive business, built on a dream and a prayer.

It was the Hail Mary play of a lifetime.

As the Religious Gems show’s popularity grew, Paul made his way over to KDIA where a series of programs became a daily event that lasted well into eleven straight years. of on-air publicity for Paul and Mel, which help build the business of Reid’s Records through constant promotion. Paul along with his nephew Mel, never looked back, and they went on to help influence very famous Gospel groups like the The Edwin Hawkins Singers. This was an incredible feat, because at the same time he was playing professional sports almost year around. They became quite the pair of music recording professionals. Mel was the first manager for Walter Hawkins, brother to Edwin Hawkins of The Edwin Hawkins Singers, and it was Mel that helped put “Oh Happy Day” on the charts by suggesting that Edwin meet with the executives from Buddah Records to iron out a deal for major distribution. It was one of the best decisions that Mel ever made, and every time I hear it, and can’t help but think that a baseball and football player of some renown had something to do with that choice. Rumor has it that Mel was tour manager for The Edwin Hawkins Singers when they toured Europe in 1970.

Dorothy Morrison, of the Blues Broads recounts her version of the details that placed them in capable hands of Mel Reid.

The Pacific Coast Professional Football League is rarely talked about among sporting aficionados. It wasn’t quite the NFL or AFL, but it existed at a time when the NFL was at a transitional stage in American history and it was founded during World War II, in 1943. the year that Melvin Reid enter the PCPFL, was the same year that the NFL allowed the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers merged to become the “Steagles“, and split their home games between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, because the draft and military enlistment overwhelmingly depleted the pool of men who played professional sports.

Mel gained his military deferment buy being employed in the Kaiser Shipyards (aka Richmond Shipyards) during World War II. He was part of that group of men and women that built Liberty Ships, Troops Transport Ships and LST’s. No ships, no D-Day, No D-Day, no end to World War II. With the respect to those that fought abroad, it’s a difficult task for some Americans to understand that after the destruction of Pearl Harbor and the 7th Fleet, ships to win the war would need to be built in record time, and they would be built by using African American labor in Richmond, CA at a pace never seen before in ship building history. Ships built in two-thirds the time, at one quarter the cost.

At the same time, this was a time in history when you could get a steak dinner for $2.00 at Dugan’s Cafe, or after an Oakland Giants footbal game, you could go and watch Ivie Anderson perform. She was one of the finest singers that ever lived. Ivie was one of America’s leading jazz artist, who once sang with the incomparable Duke Ellington Orchestra, with created solid hits like “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” or “I’ve Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good“. She often headlined at the North Pole Club, at 6th and Kirkham in West Oakland.

It wasn’t Slim Jenkins Club, but the joint was still jumpin’.

Rumor had it that in 1945 and under no uncertain terms, Mel Reid was a victim of the NFL’s Color Line, which began in 1934 and lasted until 1946. Major League Baseball never held a monopoly on segregation or Jim Crow during this time period in America. I dare say, and I’m sure most people reading this post can only fathom what the NFL missed by not having Mel Reid’s skills on the turf by keeping the color barrier active the year Reid was voted the Pacific Coast Professional Football League’s MVP. The NFL missed a ‘Mel Reid’, based on the color of his skin, and it’s one of the main reasons that most people never heard of Mel’s sporting prowess.

1945 was the year the NFL drafted Frankie Albert from the Pacific Coast Professional Football League, but not the MVP of the league because the MVP was black.

Then there was the other Mel. The businessman Mel. The one that couldn’t wait for a break in the world of professional sports to happen. The one that was growing older. The man who was being drawn towards a career in the music industry, which he himself measured its financial potential and invested his money and his time accordingly, as he was finding his way through life at the age of 27. The race record phenomena, imposed by a racially segregated music industry within America, had a tremendous pull on Mel Reid’s spiritual sensibilities. His only other known ambition that he ever possessed was to eventually become a driver for Wonder Bread Bakeries. The same bakery that his father, Thomas Jr. had worked for his whole life, and had never seen or ever been offered a promotion within the company ranks. Thomas (Jr.), had only ever worked on the loading docks for wonder Bread, lifting 100 lbs sacks of flour,– which was nothing to be ashamed of, but proved to be a hard, laborious task, which also lacked any upward mobility within the company ranks. The powers that be, during that period of time, would never hired Mel, as a ‘black driver’, because Mel was black, and he certainly wasn’t allowed to join the Teamsters Union back in 1945.

So,…

This is why Mel decided to go into business for himself.

Still, it was often said, by Bay Area church practitioners, that Mel was commercializing gospel music, the Lord’s Music, which was highly frowned upon by the church, and the fact that he set his goals higher than most people ever could sometimes bothered people. He not only promoted gospel music, but tried his hand at producing and recording 78’s also. Mel still had that gift of selling race records to the public. That’s what they were called back in the day, and the market place for them was huge. Mel would capitalize on how big it would become. The record that would change the Reid family’s life and set them on the road to prosperity was Wynonie Harris-“Around The Clock Part 1 and 2. Mel’s reputation for selling gut bucket Blues, Soul, and R&B to the community at large, brought even the most curious from the other side of Grove (MLK) Street. In essence, the early days of Reid’s Records was borne out of its need for survival. Gospel music became a niche market much later on, as things in the community began to change, and the South Berkeley area where Reid’s Records stood was hit with residential blight, declining home values, and major drug dealing problems.

Mel was made privy to the inside track on the Gospel music scene by buying significant radio air time on KRE, and listening to his uncle Paul. Mel was also smart enough to target his market and out advertised his all of his competitors. He also had a gift as a promoter of musical acts. In doing so, the creation of a niche market, which other competitors never bothered with, built Reid’s Records to new heights. Gospel battles, between quartets and groups, staged and promoted by Mel, Betty and Paul normally would fill the Oakland Auditorium, expanding the overflow into the large ballroom area, where as many as 7,000 people show up for these Gospel Extravaganzas. They often featured the likes of such gospel stars as James Cleveland, the Rev. C.L. Franklin and his then-teenage daughter Aretha, the Caravans, Davis Sisters, the Staple Singers and the Ward Singers

Mel was a progressive individual, whose ideas were mostly ahead of their time. One of these ideas tells a tale of a young, fledgling Aretha Franklin, who Mel decided to record in 1954. I’m not sure where those master tapes ended up, but it was long before she became a famous R&B Singer, as was still using her pipes for gospel music. It was all a risk to Mel. I’m not sure he could have lived his life anyway else. The fact is, life isn’t always good as it seems, nor is it fair, and when you’re life is based on risk taking, you will literally gamble your life away. Even though gospel music had paid off big time, Mel gambled on hedging his bet with the changes in the music industry from every angle.

The challenge for Mel was stepping outside of his marketplace, only to return and find out that what he was in search of was beyond his reach. Even with the promotion of musicians and famous musical acts that Mel sold recordings of, the larger chain stores which maintained a much larger selection than Reid’s Records could ever keep in supply. Large chain record stores were able to work with much less overhead based on their ability to buy in bulk for multiple distributors. These chains stores, along with the consistent decline in the local neighborhood environment near Sacramento Street in the mid-1970’s, Reid’s Records soon found itself on the edge of imminent demise. Mel, who was suffering from severe diabetes, would eventually have both of his legs amputated. Wrought with debt and despair Mel gave in to Betty, who had divorced Mel in 1978, and she took over the business and returned it to it’s former glory days of selling Gospel music and Choir Supplies.

Reid’d Records is still in operation, and is run by Mel’s youngest son, David. With the taste in music constantly shifting, Things still hang precariously in the balance for Reid’s Records, because the musical landscape is changing and gospel music no longer possesses the same dynamic it once did in the African American community, as it once did on a much arger scale.

Not every story that involves gospel music can have a happy ending, like Sister Act II even though they sing “Oh Happy Day“.

It is nice to know Mel had a hand on making that song.

It’s something that will live throughout eternity where Gospel music is concerned.

And then you have “Around the Clock” featuring Johnny Otis’s and his jump-swing style of music. (Otis’s real name, Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, was another Berkeley legend, who as a white man chose to live his life as an African American, in both his professional and personal life. Which places a historical and social ‘perspective’ on Professor Rachel Dolezal choice to be “black”, within the concept that her claim of wanting to live life as a “black” person is not a new phenomena, and never has been one) Otis put the band together and Harris recorded the song,…Mel bought the “Around The Clock” record in bulk, which started the ball rolling for producing a steady cash-flow income for Reid’s Records. Of course,… there were all those other outside influences that were so distant from the gospel music scene, yet reflective of human life, human failings, and nature itself.

Well, sometimes I think I will, …yes, and sometimes I think I won’t…sometimes I think I will,…yes, and sometimes I think I won’t. Sometimes I believe I do and sometimes, and then again I believe I don’t. Well, looked at the clock,…the clock struck one,…he said, “Come on daddy, have a little more fun”,…yes, we rollin’, …we rollin’ on time. ” –Wynonie Harris-“Around The Clock Part 1 and 2

Negro League Baseball: Ed Harris and the PCL

WCBA Iron Horsemen

John Ritchey, Luke Easter, unknown, Ed Harris, Artie Wilson publicity photo, circa 1948

This photo has always made ponder the question, “What are these men doing?”.

This is the second part of a column I wrote called the “The PCL and the Color Line“, which was posted by John Thorn in Our Game, that wonderful MLB blog that I hope everyone takes the time to drop by and read when they get a chance. I’d like to thank John for taking the the time to address social construct of the “color line” as a part of baseball history research, that affected both sides of a conflict which seemed to run parallel to the social structures of American history. One side was publicly seen and well documented, while the other side has researchers and members of the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference group diligently piecing together this lost history with limited information at our access.

This is why they say, “A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words”.

I hope we can use this picture to explore the known people in this picture, and how this picture possibly came into being.

John Ritchey, Luke Easter, Ed Harris and Artie Wilson.

From this photo, one could surmise that there were two very important gentlemen in the background who remained unseen. They were very well known in the sporting world and wielded great influence and power when it came to negotiating contracts, written and verbal, and also when it came to scouts, or agents who acted as “scouts”, and Negro League players looking to break the color line in Major League baseball.

Those two gentlemen were Abe Saperstein and Bill Veeck.

Ellensburg Daily Record-5-4-1948-Pg. 8

Ellensberg Daily Record May 4, 1948

Abe Saperstein was President of the West Coast Baseball Association in 1946, and one of his associates in the newly formed league was Ed Harris, Business Manager for the Oakland Larks. We’re all aware that the WCBA didn’t last very long, but their were two teams that remained active for years beyond the 1946 disbanding of the WCBA. The Oakland Larks and the Seattle Steel Heads barnstormed the West, Midwest, the South and Canada as long as they could find teams to play against and fields to play on. The Seattle Steel Heads changed their name to the Harlem Globetrotters baseball team. They continued to barnstorm where ever they could bring in a crowd. Saperstein was officially disconnected from the former WCBA Oakland Larks by then, and continued to pursue his exploits in basketball and baseball with his early Harlem Globetrotters, and his A.M. Saperstein Sports Enterprises.

As Dr. Leslie Heaphy pointed out in her book, “The Negro Leagues: 1869-1960“, “Saperstein owned the Seattle entrant”[1].

By the same token, Saperstein chose to hide his ownership of the Seattle Steel Heads.

Following the baseball and money trail, we’ll make a stop along the early route to acknowledge the existence of  the Cincinnati Crescents, which was one of the teams that was also connected to Abe Saperstein, and one of the teams that Luke Easter starred on. The Cincinnati Crescents would eventually become the Seattle Steel Heads. Abe Saperstein also owned the Birmingham Black Barons in 1940.  Abe Saperstein created something very interesting when it came to sports management. It was a moving, living, breathing sports agency–with every finger in as many pies as he could possibly place them in. Basketball players that played baseball and vice versa.

There was a massive connection between these teams and Abe’s Sports Enterprises company, as well as the people he was formerly connected with in the WCBA when it came to moving his stable of players, or any former players like chess pieces, into the world of Major League baseball. Abe learned from his early experiences as a coach for the Savoy Big Five, that players remained loyal when they are well paid and treated with respect. Abe would make sure he would not be placed in the same position that T.Y. Baird had been placed in when Jackie Robinson accepted Branch Rckey’s offer to play in the bigs. Saperstein was also a master salesman who had no love for Jackie Robinson, and never minced words about it. The fact that Robinson could be the straw that broke the back of A.M. Saperstein Enterprises, because Robinson and Rickey were receiving massive media attention, angered Abe Saperstein. Other Negro ball players of exceptional caliber were being overlooked, and this made Abe no advocate of integration unless it was on his terms.

The Afro-American-6-15-1946-i-Pg. 14

The Afro-American-6-15-1946-ii-Pg. 14

The Afro-American June 15, 1946

The move to create the West Coast Baseball Association, as so aptly put by Dr. Heaphy, was Abe’s way of showing that “black baseball still had life” [2], and that Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson was not a death knell to the Negro Leagues. This move also contained another aspect to Saperstein’s business ventures, which was the creation of a barnstorming slash farm venture, which helped maintain what Abe felt was his legitimate right to negotiate contracts with Major League baseball teams for players working under his A.M. Saperstien Enterprises umbrella. By maintaining the Seattle Steel Heads in the North West as a ‘silent owner’, and keeping in contact with Ed Harris, business manager of the Oakland Larks, who’s continued to barnstorm between late 1946 to 1948, in small towns all over America, Abe’s continued connections to his past associations and acquaintances would allow him to keep tabs on new and upcoming talent in Negro Baseball that wasn’t presently connected with the NNL or NAL.

The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, 1997,  edited by Peter M. Rutkoff and Alvin L. Hall, mentions the deal that Abe negotiated for Veeck with the Kansas City Monarchs for Satchel Paige to pitch for the Cleveland Indians, in which Abe himself netted a hefty $15,000. In comparison, Luke Easter’s contract only cost Veeck $5,000.[3]

I’m also well aware that these statements contradict the assertion made in “A Baseball Myth Exploded” written by David M. Jordan, Larry Gerlach, and John P. Rossi, that Bill Veeck and Abe Saperstein were not in engaged together for Veeck to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and stock the bankrupt 1942 team with African American players, or as they stated “He (Veeck) did not work with Abe Saperstein and others to stock any team with Negro Leagues stars“.[4] There is a shortsighted assumption made by these gentlemen that ‘back door deals’, in general, do not take place in the world of baseball. What I mean by “back door” is a deal hidden from view of the public. or those not involved in the deal. The fact is, Veeck and Saperstein did try to do exactly that. They tried to stock the Cleveland Indians with stars, and it was a process created over time, and they used others to perform their scouting task.

As I said before, a picture is worth a thousand words.

John Ritchey-Luke Easter-Artie Wilson 1949

Luke Easter, Artie Wilson, and John Ritchey of the PCL San Diego Padres (photo courtesy of William Swank)

Here is a photo of these three gentlemen again. “Luciuous” Luke Easter, John “Hoss” Ritchey and Artie Wilson.

This is the only time I’ve ever seen Artie Wilson in a San Diego Padres uniform

We’ve established that Luke Easter’s contract was purchased by Bill Veeck, and we know that Easter previously played for the Cincinnati Crescents. Artie Wilson was also wooed by Veeck, according to Paul Dickson, in his book, “Bill Veeck, Baseball’s Greatest Maverick”. Dickson stated that Veeck “flew unannounced to San Juan to sign shortstop Artie Wilson, who was playing off-season ball for the Mayaguez Indians of the Puerto Rican Winter League but during the regular played for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues.”[5].

Of course, according to the legendary tale, New York Yankee’s general manager, George Weiss, claimed that Veeck had engaged in “unethical behavior”.[6]

When I spoke with William Swank, San Diego baseball historian, he told me that John Ritchey was a hometown boy from San Diego, so being signed by the PCL’s San Diego Padres probably had little to do with Veeck or Saperstein. What was the common denominator between Ritchey, Easter, and Willson?

Ed Harris, and Ed Harris’s connection to Abe Saperstein.

After reading “Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League“, by Martha Ackmann, I reevaluated the significance of these two pictures, along with her statement Dr. Ackmann made about a letter written by Ed Harris. The paragraph stood out to me, and I questioned: Was Ed Harris the 1st African American scout for the PCL?

“As impossible as it seemed just three years earlier, Eddie Harris, former business manager of the association, was now working for the formerly all-white Pacific Coast League, scouting black talent for the newly integrated Seals and San Diego Padres. “I believe this is the greatest chance for Negro talent here on the Coast”, he wrote. “If they make good here there is a great chance of making the big League.” Harris asked his friends to let him know of” any good players that you think could make the grade. All their expenses would be paid to California. “They’ll get the best of everything while in spring training…”act quickly,” he said”.[7]

The letter in question is one that was sent to Clifford Allen by Ed Harris in 1949.

Ed Harris Correspondence for Barnstorming Games and Business 2

The question I pose here is:

Was Ed Harris, by way of a disbanded West Coast Baseball Association, connected to an “intricate scouting system” [8], headed up by people like Abe Saperstein of A.M. Saperstein Sports Enterprises, Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians, and also William Starr, owner of the San Diego Padres? William Swank, who I posed this question to, does not believe it happened that way. I respect him for saying so. When I emailed Dr. Ackmann about Ed Harris’s letter to Clifford Allen on Ed Harris being a scout for the PCL, her response was that the subject matter “was not a particularly rich collection for my purposes.”. This is something I agree with also. The documentation about Ed Harris being a scout for the PCL is very lean, but they are in his own words.

I doubt if we researchers will ever find a written contract between Abe Saperstein or A.M. Saperstein Sports Enterprises and Ed Harris naming Harris as a ‘scout’ for the purposes of recruiting Negro League star players for the PCL that could eventually move up to Major Leagues.

The 1948 publicity photo and the photo of those three PCL San Diego Padres in uniform together says a lot more about Ed Harris than what is written on paper alone.

___   *  _____  *  _____  *  ____

1)  Leslie A. Heaphy, “The Negro Leagues: 1869-1960“, McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2003, Page 213

2) ibid

3) Peter M. Rutkoff and Alvin L. Hall, “The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, 1997″, McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2000, Page 117

4) “A Baseball Myth Exploded“, David M. Jordan, Larry Gerlach, and John P. Rossi, SABR Research Paper, 1999, SABR.org,

5) Paul Dickson, “Bill Veeck, Baseball’s Greatest Maverick”, Westchester Book Group, 2012, Page 171

6) ibid, page 172

7) Martha Ackmann, “Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League, Lawrence Hill Books, 2010, Page 70

8) Burton A. Boxerman, Benita W. Boxerman, “Jews and Baseball: Volume 1, Entering the American Mainstream 1871-1948“, McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2007, Page 138

 

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.

Negro League Baseball: What Would Johnny Do? The Story Of Johnny Allen Of The Oakland Larks.

Johnny Allen (SS)-Oakland Larks

Johnny Allen, Shortstop for the Oakland Larks (WCBA)

Using a wonderful quote made by Sammie Haynes, catcher for the Kansas City Monarchs, from the book “Black Baseball In Kansas City” written by Larry Lester and Sammy J. Miller, “Sammie, would you rather go to Heaven or Kansas City?” he would have said, “Lord I’ll see you later, but right now I want to go to Kansas City”. The quote itself has been retold any number of ways. The idea behind the story was true of many baseball players who were given the opportunity to play for the Kansas City Monarchs. Johnny Allen was one of those players, but he chose to stay and play for the Oakland Larks of the West Coast Baseball Association instead of going to Kansas City.

Sammie Haynes played three years for the Kansas City Monarch, and in his early days, he played for the Atlanta Black Crackers. Sammie Haynes also managed the Atlanta Black Crackers from 1945 to 1947. He founded the International Society Of Athletes in Los Angeles. At the best of times, in his own words, Sammie Haynes made $200 a month, netting $140 or less after meal expenses. Not much is known about Johnny Allen, except he was an exceptional athlete, who played baseball, basketball, and football, and played all three at ‘professional’ level. Johnny’s talents in sports was recognized at an early age as a Berkeley High Yellow Jacket. He was the other half of the Mel ReidJohnny Allen Yellow Jacket Duo. Mel Reid, nephew of Charlie Reid, is a baseball story in itself.

Johnny Allen’s talent as a heavy hitting shortstop could be seen in his early years when he was batting .475 for the Junior American Legion, Berkeley Post No. 7, for Coach Elgin Erickson. Johnny went on to play baseball, football, and basketball for the San Jose State Spartans. As a basketball player for the San Jose Spartan team, he earned the nickname, “The Ebony Express”. based on his level of playing endurance, by playing a total of 555 minutes out of a possible 660 total minutes playing time for the 1940 Spartan Basketball season. Producing an 84% ‘off the bench and on the court’ time was a new San Jose State record, for this hard playing, Spartan defensive point guard.

In 1946 (according to Baseball-Reference.com), the replacement shortstop for Jackie Robinson, Jim Hamiton, played one part of the 1946 season with the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Baseball Association, and spent his remaining time with the 1946 season with the Kansas City Monarchs, until a 1946 Negro League World Series game injury knocked him out of baseball for good. Israel Harvey suffered a dislocated knee, and Hamilton received a broken leg on a attempted double play. I’m not sure if it was HaroldYellowhorse” Morris‘ idea to send Jim to Kansas City, but I’m sure he was happy for him. Hamilton was them replaced by Othello “Chico” Renfroe, the star of the 1946 Negro League World Series. Recently, a book was written about William “Youngblood” McCrary, called “A Legend Among Us” by Linda Pennington Black. where a claim is made that he was the Jackie Robinson replacement shortstop between 1946 to 1948.

T.Y. Baird, who in 1946, was the main Kansas City Monarch scout, recruiter, and game scheduler when professional baseball was in its greatest transition.  The fact the Branch Rickey never contacted T.Y. Baird when it came to Jackie Robinson’s transitioning to AAA ball without Baird’s permission, and then on to the Majors, remained a sore spot with Baird for years to come.  T.Y Baird was a wheeler dealer when it came to contracts and signing talent for the Kansas City Monarchs. I think the only time he ever kicked himself was for not have a long-term contact with rookie shortstop, Jack Robinson. He vilified Branch Rickey for “stealing” what he considered his “property”. I’ve never quite understood Baird’s disdain for Rickey on the issue of not including in the Robinson crossover. It been said by those who knew of him, that Baird ransacked leagues all over the nation for African American talent, wherever he could find it, without any concern for the team or leagues he pillaged from. Never the less, he raked Rickey over the media coal, because he felt slighted.

Between 1946 and 1956, Baird sold 38 of these African American players, 29 of them to Major League teams, making an exorbitant amount of return on his initial investment. Near his retirement date, he had the nerve to complain that all that was left was 4 ballplayers and a bus driver. Tim Rives essay on T.Y. Baird called, “Tom Baird: A Challenge To Modern Memory Of The Kansas City Monarchs“, found in “Satchel Paige And Company“, edited by Leslie A. Heaphy, is an astounding piece of research that unveils Baird’s innate acumen as a cunning business man, who saw African American players as nothing more than chattel property, absent of human qualities and personal needs to excel at their profession. Possessing a discrimination factor and depth of perception so acute, that Baird himself could not see the writing on the wall of Major League Baseball change, and basically destroyed all that he built, while laying the blame at Rickey’s feet. Even with his connections to the Ku Klux Klan, posing as a political figurine, and the mere suggestion of being related to Cole Younger of the Jesse James-Cole Younger gang, speaks of how deep his connections to the Knights Of The Golden Circle really were.

Still, he was not infallible.

Baird, in no uncertain terms, was a Donald Sterling archtype character of that period in baseball history.

Baird was no angel; he was a pirate.

Baird gave the pretense of being a ‘farmer’, but people were disposable to him.

So far we have rookie shortstop who takes the risk and decides not to return to the World Champions Kansas City Royals, moving on to bigger and better things with the Montreal Royals, and another heavy hitting shortstop who was a former West Coast Baseball Association player, with a broken leg which now ended his baseball career permanently. What would Johnny Allen do? How would he look at these things and his future? So far as stories go, it wouldn’t end here. I ran across some correspondence between Ed Harris, manager of the Oakland Larks and Co-Founder of the West Coast Baseball Association and T.Y. Baird of the Kansas City Monarchs. I was compelled to share it with those who might have an interest in such research, because people often assume that the West Coast Baseball Association was an inferior league, with inferior players. Research on the subject has proven solidly to the contrary. The WCBA is just not as well studied as other leagues as it should be. The following letter, seen below, is in response to Ed Harris requesting a few practice sessions and possible exhibition games with the Kansas City Monarch after becoming WCBA Champions, and seeing if Mr. Baird could find it possible to arrange a few games with the 1946 Champions Oakland Larks.

Ed Harris Correspondence With T.Y. Baird For Johnny Allen-Poaching Business 1

T.Y. Baird correspondence with Ed Harris, Oct. 22, 1946

One can look at this letter any number of ways. Baird’s reasoning seems forced, but as a business man, who was often perceived as a hard man of ideals, also realizes that he’s pulled one over on Abe Saperstein and Ed Harris by acquiring Jim Hamilton at the end of the 1946 season, when the San Francisco Sea Lions were out of the running. At that time, owners of professional baseball teams, both from the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball, were on the hunt for prospective additions to their teams and new talent that would match the Robinson move made by Branch Rickey. Those that were selling contract were buying new ones, and those that were buying were paying hefty prices for this inexplicable “new” commodity, even though it had been around for many years. Baird never considered the West Coast Baseball Association a viable ‘professional’ league, unless he could use it as his own personal farm. Then his attitude was much more amenable, when it benefited his wants and desires. Ed Harris was no one’s fool, and Baird assumed the Ed Harris and the West Coast Baseball Association was easy pickings.

Ed Harris Correspondence With T.Y. Baird For Johnny Allen-Poaching Business 2

T.Y. Baird correspondence with Ed Harris, January 6, 1947

It was a well known fact, that Johnny Allen was considered by the International League, who had followed him the summer of 1946, to be the next Jackie Robinson. If the truth be told, so did T.Y. Baird. Baird, in respect to Ed Harris, could never be ‘too condescending’. It was in his nature as a negotiator to make those he dealt with feel inferior to him, especially if they were African American, and well educated. In making a stab at a request to buy Johnny Allen’s contract from Ed Harris and the Oakland Larks franchise, Baird’s comment about “if you want to give him a shot to go up”, while at the same time refusing to schedule any games with his Kansas City Monarchs, present us with Baird’s air of superiority stands out above all. In other words, –‘Your team and your players aren’t good enough to schedule a game with, however–I’d like to buy one of them from you–if you can see your way to release him to me for a $300 bribe‘.

As an added insult, Baird “suggest” that Ed Harris “write  a little slower”, as not to appear too intelligent in the face of Baird’s self-aggrandizing awesomeness. These are moments that either make one cringe, or accept the devil in the details of how things really happened in those days, without the necessity of sugar coating them for posterity’s sake. Baird was who he was, and Ed Harris was who he was. They both butted head, proudly, at a time when the greatest game in the world would change the American perception of how people of color should be accepted in a nation undergoing undeniable shifting, that would offer no other choice but to move it forward.

It was also a time of great confusion.

Spokane Daily Chronicle-8-14-1946-Pg. 13

Spokane Daily Chronicle, August 14, 1946

I do not know if “Effa Cared More Than Jackie?!?!?!?“, which was asserted by Lawrence Rushing at the 2014 Jerry Malloy Conference in Detroit. Ryan Whirty who wrote this blog gives a blow by blow details of what Mr. Rushing asserted that brought the house down. Such comparative analysis often requires proof. When proof is presented, then said assertions are undeniable. 1945, 1946 and 1947 were a time of tremendous upheaval in the all professional MLB, AAA baseball, and semi-professional baseball, with a change that would ignite conflicting political stances across the board. Things would never be the same again, and that would certainly sadden some and uplift others. Johnny Allen spent 1946 with the Oakland Larks, as their heavy hitting shortstop. He spent 1947 and 1948 on the road, barnstorming the United States and elsewhere with the Oakland Larks, even though the West Coast Baseball Association disbanded after only one season. Finding places that would allow them to play presented more of a challenge when it came to all the changes that were taking place in the United States and also on the West Coast.

There’s no telling what Johnny Allen would have done, or how far he could of gone if he had a mentor like Branch Rickey.

Negro League Baseball: Mayor Lionel Wilson’s Life And Times Before The Oakland Larks

I just finished reading a post called “Looking Back: California’s Negro League“, by Ralph Pearce, written for the San José Public Library.

It was nice, informative, and mentioned in passing, Lionel “Lefty” Wilson, former Mayor of Oakland, California. Lionel was one of the Oakland Larks pitching staff, along with Marion “Sugar” Cain, Wade James, “Wee Willie” Jones, and Charles “Specks” Roberts. Not many people know that Lionel “Lefty” Wilson was part of the Oakland Larks pitching staff, but they know even less about how many years he played the game of baseball as a formidable semi-professional pitcher on multiple teams in the Berkeley Colored League, and other East Bay Area teams in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I’ve always wanted to do a post about Mayor Wilson’s abilities as a baseball wunderkind, utilizing the sporting skills he amassed, which served him well during his three terms in office as Oakland’s first African American mayor, that lasted from 1977 to 1991. Lionel Wilson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was the eldest son of Jules and Louise Wilson, when Lionel’s family moved to Oakland in 1918, and Lionel was just under four years of age. He and his two young brothers, Kermit and Julius, along with Jules’ mother, Mary Wilson, left the South to forge ahead and seek new opportunities in California during the period of the Great Migration. As a boy, he spent a good deal of his time playing sports and delivering newspapers throughout the Oakland and Berkeley proper–on foot.

After graduating with honors from McClymond High School, Lionel’s grades and hard efforts made it possible for him to enroll in the University Of California at Berkeley to study economics. It should be noted, at the same time he was an integral part of the Berkeley Pelicans of the Berkeley Colored League, which would become the Berkeley International League by 1935. I was asked to point him out in this photograph, archived by John Ward, owner and proprietor of Good Old Sandlot Days website, and it was easy enough to do. Lionel Wilson was the sharp dressed young man, wearing the Cal Berkeley letterman’s sweater.

1930_Berkeley_Pelicans

Berkeley Pelicans of the Berkeley International League, formerly the Berkeley Colored League

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 9.30.22 AM

I do believe the photograph is circa 1930’s, and a further approximation would be between 1933 and 1935. Lionel was one of the pitchers on the roster for the California State Semi-Pro Championship Tournament for 1935, sponsored by the Oakland Tribune and the Northern California Baseball Managers Association. The tournament itself was styled after the Denver Tournament, and after years of correspondence, Charlie Tye, Executive Secretary of the Northern California Baseball Managers Association was able to put together a solid annual event where as many as 35,000 spectators watched their favorite hometown semi-pro players, until the remaining five top five teams competed in the finals for a shared pot of $3,500-and bragging rights.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 5.56.48 PM

Editorial from ‘Basehit’, the Official Souvenir Program for the 3rd Annual California State Semi-Pro Baseball Championship Tournament in 1935

By 1939, Lionel had graduated from Cal Berkeley with a B.A. in Economics. He put himself through school  by working as a Pullman Porter, a dishwasher, and a factory laborer at the C&H Sugar Refinery in Crockett, and still found time to play semi-professional baseball and basketball. By 1940, he found employment as a maintenance worker at Alameda Naval Air Station, and was part of the recreation staff at the North Oakland Y.M.C.A., which is noted in the 1940 U.S. Census, although it shows him as a “Teacher” for the E.E.P (Emergency Educational Program founded by the Works Progress Administration), which Lionel clarifies in his Bancroft Library Oral History interview with interviewer Gabrielle Morris.

By 1940, Lionel would once again pick up his glove and don his baseball cap to play in the 1940 California State Semi-Pro Championship Tournament for the California Eagles. Except this time, he wasn’t part of the pitching staff. That was left to “Cool Papa” Jackson, Mike “Showboat” Berry, “Speedball” Cranston, and “Schoolboy” Taylor. Lionel was on the team as Lionel Wilson, not “Lefty”, for the tournament. That year, he played Center Field for Ike Thompson, Manager of the California Eagle Champions.

1940_California_Eagles-8510-800-600-100-wm-right_bottom-100-GOSDWatermark6450reductionpng

1940 California Eagles, Champions of the California State Semi-Pro Championship Tournament

Working at the Naval Air Station only delayed Lionel Wilson being drafted. At first, it was thought that he might join the Civil Air Corps, but that idea wasn’t for him. Even with his degree and work experience, Lionel made the decision to enlisted in the United States Army in 1943, and served two years during the end period of World War II. After completely three years of service two of them in a combat unit in the U.S European Forces, Lionel was promoted to First Sargent. He left the service shortley after being accepted at Hasting Law School in San Francisco.

In 1946, he would also return to his first love; baseball. In 1946, upon the creation of the West Coast Baseball Association, Lionel tried out for the Oakland Larks and made the team. It should be noted here that Ike Thompson, former Manager of the California Eagle Championship team, would one sit on the Board of Directors for the West Coast Baseball Association and would have known the quality of baseball that was played by Lionel “Lefty” Wilson.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 4.54.51 PM

Lionel “Lefty”-“Everything” Wilson, 5 wins 2 Losses, Bats Left, Throws Left

At the age of 31, “Lefty” Wilson would find himself part of the pitching staff of a newly formed, professional ‘Negro League’, based on the West Coast, that was started by Abe Saperstein and Jessie Owens, along with Byron “Speed” O’Reilly acting as the Executive Manager of the WBCA and Dewey Portlock as its Executive Secretary. Lionel would play as often as he could, and playing for the Oakland Larks would always in the forefront of his memories, while the time he spent playing semi-professional baseball was always a conversation that Mayor Wilson avoided, if at all possible. Even if he did play on championship teams in his youth, it was a sore spot that he never quite shook.

Lionel Wilson spent a good portion of his youth hoping the doors of integration would open up in the world of baseball, so he could give it his best shot when he was still relatively a young man. The Oakland Larks would be his last attempt at being noticed by the powers that be in the professional baseball circles; those able to recognize his prowess as a left-handed dynamo and team leader of the men that he played with. The Oakland Larks would be the end of that dream and his professional baseball quest. He went on to become a outstanding lawyer, the first African American Judge of Alameda County appointed to the bench, and eventually the first African American Mayor of the City Of Oakland. The early years he spent playing baseball for the Berkeley Colored League taught him the value of perseverance.

Lionel Wilson

Hats off to one of baseball’s finest men.

Negro League Baseball: Lefty Gomez vs. The Berkeley Pelicans

How good were they? : The Berkeley Colored League

by Ronald Auther

It’s a question that is frequently asked, but not that often, by those who are curious about Negro Baseball on the West Coast. The inquiries are sporadic and the curiosity fades as quickly as it comes. The Berkeley Colored League was the pride of the East Bay, which had its humble beginnings at San Pablo Park in Berkeley, California. The inventor of the league was none other that Byron “Speed” O’Reilly, better known as “Speed” Reilly.

There are those that say, “They never amounted to much…they were just bush league players”. Or, “If they were ever any good at all, why didn’t they enter the National Negro League circuit”. If the truth was told, the reasons were few and simple. Segregation was a major factor in keeping America in the dark about some of the most formidable athletes that this nation ever produced. So much so, that there were people who left the East Coast by train and car, on a consistent basis, just to play with them, or against them.

The founder, concierge, and one of the many team owner’s of the Berkeley Colored League, “Speed” Reilly, who valued all sports known to mankind, treated them all equally and with reverence, started the BCL on a whim with only a hand full of hand picked African American men from the Oakland and Berkeley area, who barnstormed together and separately around Northern California. With Perkin Woodlyn as his capable personal assistant, and Sam Pierce as the Secretary and Treasurer for the BCL, Reilly’s idea of league play would set up  a ‘Berkeley Baseball Boots and Bingles’ circuit that would showcase the skills of the African American men he scouted for years. Each one of them hired by individual team owners, and sponsored by local business’s to play at San Pablo Park, that enjoined the community and players, who contributed in the growth and financial stability, and community success of the area, from South Berkeley to West Oakland.

From their humble beginnings in 1928, Byron “Speed” O’Reilly, ran his baseball ‘league’ business in from his home, located at 580 32nd Street in Oakland, California. He lived in the heart of what would become known as “Hell’s Half Acre”, or “The Harlem Of The West Coast”. Early West Oakland was the African American’s dreams come true. It was the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. Traveling a little over 3 miles, day in and day out, Byron “Speed” O’Reilly laid his plans for financial success, by forming semi-pro baseball network during the Great Depression, which has never been duplicated by anyone to this date.

Byron possessed a gift. Not just one of gab, but superior organizational skills that were incomparable. As the duly elected President of the Berkeley Colored League, it’s nearly impossible to believe that he possessed enough time to be a sports editor for the local African American newspaper, while also being the emcee for many a ‘up and coming’ musical showcase at the Lakeside Roof Garden, Persians Gardens or Sweets Ballroom, as well as judging the weekly dance contest Yosemite Club in San Francisco, for those who sought a professional dancing career in the movies or on the stage. He was responsible for so many Bay Area innovations one can only accept the nickname he took, “Speed”, as a moniker for a man who never had time to slow down. His friend’s list was beyond compare. From the great Curtis Mosby, Les Hite, Max Baer, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Jesse Owens, just to name a few–and much too large to name them all of them here.

Still, that doesn’t explain to the public whether or not the Berkeley Colored League players of yesteryear were of equal caliber as the Major League white players of that very same era. The proof is only found in the untold history, uncovered through extensive research, on both sides of the controversy. Segregation enforced by the Jim Crow era in American history, makes fact finding difficult challenge, but not altogether impossible. It is important to remember that the quality of African American players is difficult to judge, based on the social construct that separated men and women of different races along ‘cultural lines’, even though there were no real ‘cultural differences’ preventing the races from engaging in normal, day-to-day activities. The proof of the Berkeley Colored League’s talent can be accessed today, based on what we know about others who played the game of baseball against them who and had superb talent.

To do this, we need to gauge the competition of that day, and how much they were valued as much as any other players of that day could be, when playing baseball against one another. I chose Vernon ‘Lefty’ Gomez as the formal competitor, to make a valid point of how well the Berkeley Colored League players played the game of baseball on any given day. “Goofy” Gomez, as he was known in the circles of professional baseball, was voted four-times MVP and played seven times in All-Star Games for the American League, earned two Triple Crowns, and held two pitching titles. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. There was no doubt he should have been. The New York Yankees loved Lefty, and this ‘southpaw chucker’ was very well respected, as much in the San Francisco Bay area as he was in New York. Lefty was an East Bay boy, born in Rodeo Township, California, who grew up on his parents ranch, and never had any intention of playing baseball professionally.

His parents wanted him to be an electrical engineer, and he wanted to be an aviator. He threw everyone off by becoming a baseball pitcher, stating that he became one merely because ot the concept that he was left-handed. He had a fastball and his pitching mechanic spelled pure class, coming off the mound and releasing the heat. Tall and lanky, he was the youngest of five sons and two daughters, born to Frank and Elisabeth Gomez according to the United States Census for 1920. Lefty was charming and funny, all rolled into one humorous package. There’s a seldom discussed fact about Lefty Gomez, which he had issues with maintaining his weight every time he pitched a game.

According to Nick Williams, Manager of the San Francisco Seals, stated the Lefty would actually lose between ten and fifteen pounds after each session on the mound, by expending a tremendous amount of energy. It would take food and forty-eight hours rest to regain his playing weight back. Lefty had a stellar fastball according to Williams. His wife, former Broadway Musical Star, June ‘O’Day’ Gomez, placed him on a ‘steak and eggs’, regimented breakfast diet so he could maintain his playing weight. This would change the course of how Lefty played the game. It increased his endurance, so his pitching wouldn’t fade near the last innings of the game. The sports writers of that day made a big deal about Lefty’s ethnic heritage, making sure it was well established that he was of ‘Castilian’ descent, verifying it at every step of his early career, making sure his European roots remained at the forefront of racial acceptance in the American culture. With a Hispanic last name like Gomez, it was necessary to keep up appearances and make clear he was of Spanish descent.

Now that we possess a yard stick to measure the BCL players by, we can assume the reason Vernon ‘Lefty’ Gomez was chosen, is for the simple fact that he was one of the East Bay’s original sons, learning his skill sets in the East Bay by playing in the East Bay with those from the East Bay. We can also assume that, given the early part of his baseball career, which began in his hometown of Rodeo Township, or his high school in Richmond, California, that he crossed paths with many decent baseball players, growing up with them and playing against them, until to going pro with the New York Yankees. In his senior year of high school, Lefty Gomez was offered a scholarship to St. Mary’s College High School, located in Berkeley, California. The distance from St. Mary’s College High to San Pablo Park is 2.2 miles walk down Sacramento Street. Every kid who grew up in Berkeley that went to St. Mary’s has made this walk, when it came to scoping out the local area competition.

But it’s Lefty’s professional pitching is what we’re more interested in as a unit of measurement. Like the fact in 1932, he pitched in the World Series, Game Two against the Chicago Cubs. It was the last World Series that Babe Ruth ever played in New York. The New York Yankees swept the World Series that year with a 4-0 record, which included the pitching of Vernon ‘Lefty” Gomez. Of course, Guy Bush of the Chicago Cubs trashed talked Babe Ruth during the Game One, of the 1932 World Series calling him a “n*gger”. Ty Cobb frequently called Babe Ruth the N-Word. This was the basic undertone of American society during this period in American history, which speaks for itself, with these unprovoked comment about the Babe, who wasn’t African American at all, but of German descent. One could only imagine what a skilled African American had to tolerate, when playing the game of baseball against those who looked different than he did, during this period in American history.

There are baseball players that most people have never heard of, such as, Dudley Jones, Jack Smith, Ray Crowley, Tom Jackson, Alvin Stubblefield, Wayne Gaskin, Herman Hosley, Cyril Cherry, Jess Hills, Johnny Lott, Jimmy La Blanc, Johnny Mitchell, Orviss Knowles and Lionel Wilson. In October of 1933, they were the 1933 Berkeley Pelicans, and the Berkeley Colored League Champions. By 1946, left-handed pitcher, Lionel Wilson would be still throwing left handed heat for the WCBA’s Oakland Larks, and eventually he served three consecutive terms as Mayor of Oakland, California. In 1933, Lionel Wilson was only eighteen old, and a burgeoning pitcher for a semi-pro, African American loop club. By 1933, Lefty Gomez had already pitched against the likes of the 1932 Chicago Cubs World Series line-up in Game Two, scored a victory, giving up nine hits and two runs.

By this July of 1933, Lefty Gomez had also pitched, in the coveted 1933 All-Star Game for the American League. His AL team consisted of Rick Ferrell, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmy Dykes, Joe Cronin, Ben Chapman, Al Simons, and Babe Ruth. He was the winning pitcher on July 6, 1933, defeating the National League All-Stars team by a score of 4-2. Vernon Lefty Gomez was no slouch when it came to playing the game of baseball. I often wonder, if people realize, what Vernon felt like on that day he pitched against the Berkeley Pelicans in mid-October of 1933. He had to be relieved by his older brother, for he had no younger brother, and the sports writer was taking a dig at the young Yankee pitcher for getting pounded pretty hard by the Berkeley Pelicans. He went a total of seven innings that day, before he had to be relieved by his older brother, Lloyd.

The Rodeo ball club won the game, with a final score of 7-5, but it was a tight game, and the local fans enjoyed seeing all their hometown boys play it out to the final innings. The Berkeley Pelicans made some “boots” that day that cost them the game, but they hit the ball consistently off of one of America’s all-time great pitchers. One of the best that ever set foot on the mound. There is no mistaking how good Vernon ‘Lefty’ Gomez was when it came to hurling the ball. He out hurled Lonnie Warneke in Game Two of the 1932 World Series, and demanded a steep raise in salary in 1933 from Yankees owner, Col. Jake Ruppert. ‘Lefty’ was insulted by the salary increased offered to him in a new contract for 1933, and became the first holdout more  ‘ducats’ that season. ‘Lefty’ thundered into Ed Barrow office, the business managers for the New York Yankees front office, and told him that $2000 was an “insult” and said, “I want more money”. The 1932 season pay for Lefty Gomez included regular season play plus $2,500 for the 1932 World Series, which amounted to a total of $10,000.

BG-Gomez First Holdout-Scorns 2000 Increase-1-19-1933-i

BG-Gomez First Holdout-Scorns 2000 Increase-1-19-1933-ii

Berkeley Daily Gazette, January 19, 1933

Barrow explained, that Babe Ruth had taken a $25,000 salary cut, and it was Lefty who had received a ‘raise”. ‘Lefty’ told Barrow, “You call that a raise, after the way I pitched last season? Take another look at the records, and don’t forget the World Series Statistics, then maybe we can talk business.” Lefty and Johnny Allen were the only two ‘salary increase holdouts’ for the 1933 Yankee contracted season. Lefty Gomez grumbled, He took the $12,000 salary that year, because it looked better than the $7,500 he’d made in 1932, or no salary at all. In 1934, he kept his mouth shut, and didn’t receive a dime more than $12,000. Col. Jake Ruppert had taught Lefty Gomez a valuable lesson about being gracious when accepting a salary increase.

Oh, and by the way, the answer is ‘yes’… They were that good.

The Berkeley Colored League Players were as good as any of their Depression Era contemporaries. Segregation was the imposing societal factor that kept African American players of the great game of baseball from being as well know by one and all. Playing the game against the best was sometimes payment enough. It gave the players bragging rights, but does little for the hidden history that we researchers must dig deep to access. A week later, the Berkeley Gray All-Stars would take a ride out to Rodeo, California, seeking revenge for the loss that the Berkeley Pelicans received the week before. They were also a part of the Berkeley Colored League aggregate loop, the game ended up rained out after four scoreless innings, and Vernon ‘Lefty’ Gomez was nowhere to be found. He had a reputation to uphold. He never returned to pitch against the men of the Berkeley Colored League that next weekend. I don’t blame him for not taking the mound against them ever again.

It was segregation as a rule that kept the men of the Berkeley Colored League names out of the annals of history. It was never their skills. They always made time to play against those who were called the “best” that baseball ever produced.

But on that day of revenge, Lefty chose to keep his hurling reputation intact.

Grays Rained Out In Rodeo Game-11-2-1933

The San Francisco Spokesman November 2, 1933

Negro League Baseball: Hillary “Bullet” Meaddows And The Alexander Giants

The thing about West Coast Negro League baseball is that the question that is most often asked is, “Were the players of the North California teams as good as those of the California Winter League, or their Eastern counterparts?” or “If they were that good, why didn’t more of them turn professional and play in the NNL or ECL?”. These are valid questions. It is undeniable, that a lot of players passed up the opportunity to play in the Major Negro Leagues, only to fall through the cracks of Negro League baseball history, or to only be maligned as unworthy men of any Negro League baseball recognition. I suspect that if the truth be told, why some goods players chose to stay in a place where they could play good baseball, while enjoying the creature comforts of life while ‘community building’, an answer like that would never suffice to some baseball historians who’d never concern themselves with the social dynamics of how life was during Jim Crow.

Yet, some can spin a tale or two about their favorite Negro League players, when they find decent ones, and expound on their favorite player’s virtues or lack there of, detailing their personal lives as best as they can, while presenting these concepts as undiscovered or undisclosed mysteries. I find, more often than not, that its been much easier for baseball historians to dismiss the Northern California Negro League players as an anomaly for further research ‘at some point’ down the road, or totally devalue their playing skills as a fluke among the annal of baseball history. If there was one good player among them, then the rest of them were obviously below average or mediocre, or basically not good at all. If that was the truth, then one must ask themselves, “If they could have gone pro–why didn’t they?”

Hillary “Bullet” Meaddows is a prime example of of someone who could have gone into the National Negro League, the Eastern Colored League, but he chose to stay and play in the East Bay after he left Tennessee as a child.

Hilary Bullet Meaddows 2

Hillary “Bullet” Meaddows

I’m going to make the assumption that after leaving his birth place of Tennessee, and living in Northern California for some time, Hilary had absolutely no desire to return East or South, based on his new found reality in the San Francisco Bay Area. Even living in Southern California was a extreme challenge for African Americans during the turn of the 20th Century. Contrasting that to the peonage population of Tennessee, and the forced ‘convict labor’ coal mining taking place in Tennessee, its not really a hard decision to never return to the South or head East ever again–if you were African America, and especially if you possessed outstanding baseball skills. Hillary “Bullet” Meaddows was one of those type of baseball players.

Hilary Bullet Meaddows-1940 Census

Hillary Meaddows U.S. 1940 Census Record

According to the U.S. Census Record for 1940, Hilary worked as a laborer for the City Of Oakland. In 1940, this was a good gig with benefits, especially for someone who had only a 7th Grade education. I’m not sure how long he had the job for, but more than likely, he had some serious time invested in it, because at the time of this Census taking in 1940, he was 48 years old.

From his early days with the Oakland (Colored) Giants to the Lynne-Stanley Giants, Hilary bounced from one team to another. There was a definitive split in the Lynne-Stanley Giants camp down the road a piece, which I believe was caused by the distance Chet Bost required his players to travel over the years, exacerbated by his tough management style. As a team Captain on the field, Bost was one of the finest leaders around. As a team player/manager, he may have been a bit of a tyrant, requiring his East Bay team mates to play more games in the Central Valley than they actually wanted to. Chet was from the Central Valley. His best players were not, and they probably wanted to play closer to home. California was filled with Sundown towns during this era of league play, and it was imperative that African Americans respect the hidden lines of Jim Crow in California. For every area of California was not South Berkeley or West Oakland. Hilary lived just a little over 2 miles from San Pablo Park, on 36th Street, in West Oakland, and he played in most of the surrounding parks there for most of his life.

Meaddows played for any number of teams in the San Francisco Bay Area. the Oakland Cubs, the Oakland (Colored) Giants, the Lynne-Stanley Giants, the Royal Colored Giants Of Oakland, the Oak Leafs, Maxwell’s Hardware, and a much longer list of other teams. The connection between Maxwell’s Hardware team and the Berkeley Colored League, reaches all the way through two decades, all the up to the West Coast Baseball Association, the West Coast league professional league started by Jesse Owens and Abe Saperstein, which is another story in itself.

I ran across this article which was very enlightening about Hillary “Bullet” Meaddows and his skill set as a Northern California Negro League baseball player.

CE-Giants improve Batting Records-Beat Sherrett Stars-6-21-1921-i

The California Eagle, June 21, 1921 Part 1

CE-Giants improve Batting Records-Beat Sherrett Stars-6-21-1921-ii

The California Eagle,  June 21, 1921 Part 2

Hillary “Bullet” Meaddows was the “star” attraction on that day, and at request of Neal Pullen, he came South to play the a game of baseball for the Alexander Giants. Pullen had his choice of replacements for John Riddle. Hillary played that day, like he always played. Hard and fast. Now, I know that this doesn’t mean much to the average person who still thinks that the Negro League player of Northern California was not as good as say, one of the Brooklyn Royal Giants, or someone from the Baltimore Black Sox, or even a player from New York Lincoln Giants. I’ve even heard that players from Northern California, weren’t even the same caliber of players as say the Philadelphia Royal Giants of the L.A. White Sox.

Yet, they’ve never asked the most pertinent question of all, which is– “why,… if they were that good, why would they choose to stay in Northern California?

That is the question that needs to be pondered by those who think the Bay Area Negro League players were less gifted than their California Winter League, NNL and ECL counterparts. There are many good stories about players from the Northern California, who played primarily in about the East Bay. This is is just one of them.

There is a lot more stories to tell.