Norman O. Houston: Lost and Found

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

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

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Norman O. Houston

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

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San Francisco Call – February 27, 1909

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

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

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

Brooklyn Alameda County
Map of Oakland and Brooklyn – 1885

Hotel Vedome San Jose
Hotel Vendome – San Jose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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California Eagle – 1925

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of Norman O. Houston-ii

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

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

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

Norman O. Huston Park-2

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


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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Those Eastside Girls: African American Women’s Baseball

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1928-Young Women of Twelfth Street “Colored Branch” of the YWCA

Early Women’s baseball has ostensibly been earmarked with the ‘beginning of league play between women’ with the founding of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. But before there was “A League Of Their Own“, there was another unheard of league that played at White Sox Field in South Central Los Angeles, whenever the opportunity was presented to them. The league itself had no name, yet the teams were grounded in very competitive league play, and that league flourished between 1926  to 1928, right before the Great Depression would take a toll on the entire American population.

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Twelfth Street “Colored Branch” of the YWCA

As reported weekly by Gladys Mathonican, for the California Eagle column called “Girletics“, the Y.W.C.A.’s Southern California Girl Reserves teams from all over Los Angeles gathered to play head-to-head, with much fan fair.

CE-Girletics-12-24-1926-i-H. Levette
California Eagle -December 24, 1926

Gladys was a young sports editor and the upcoming sidekick of Harry Levette, lead sports editor and entertainment reporter for the California Eagle. Levette was Southern California’s version of Northern California’s Byron “Speed” Reilly. When it came to sports and entertainment reporting, Levette, who was a very well known Associated Negro Press icon, had his hands full with covering professional and semi-professional sporting events and national entertainment highlights visiting in town, and those national items that came off the wire for the Associated Negro Press.

Gladys, who was young, intelligent and well spoken, took up the slack for Levette. She was also a well known singer in the Los Angeles area, and also a Girl Reserves athlete as well. The YWCA group that was created for reaching every race, creed, and color shortly after the end of World War I, was used to enhance societal spirituality and foster good health and moral upbringing of young American women.

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The Girl Reserves motto was as follows:

As A Girl Reserve: I will try to be…

Gracious In All Manner,
Impartial In All Judgment,
Ready For All Service,
Loyal To All Friends

Reaching Toward The Best,
Earnest In Purpose,
Seeing The Beautiful,
Eager For Knowledge,
Reverent For God,
Victorious Over Self,
Ever Dependable,
Sincere At All Times.

The study of African American women in baseball is limited in some aspects only to those women who participated in the Negro Leagues; like Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Toni Stone, and Connie Morgan. But who proceeded them as role models? Were there roles models for them outside of men playing the sport of baseball? The facts show that women played organized baseball, in league type play, long before World War II and Philip K. Wrigley creation of the AAGPBL.

In 1913, at Eastlake Park, in the Booker T. Washington community, two teams of African American women picked up the bat and balled and played a baseball game against one another to raise money for the, African Methodist Episcopal Mission, which would eventually become the Tanner Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the city of Phoenix, Arizona.  Tanner Chapel is located directly across the street from Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Arizona Republican-Nov. 27-1913
The Arizona Republican-November,  27, 1913

The Eastside Girls neighborhood was nestled neatly between Central Avenue and Long Beach Blvd., and was the mecca of Black Los Angeles, in close proximity to the city of Vernon, which was formerly called the “Furlong Tract”. It was where black culture thrived in early Los Angeles. Central Avenue of course was the heartbeat for African American community and culture in Southern California, where black people from all over the United States migrated to, seeking opportunity and change, bringing with them a piece of their Southern roots.

The Dunbar Hotel and Lincoln Theater, would be centrally located in this burgeoning neighborhood as well as White Sox Park, which was expansive, and was Los Angeles’s predecessor in multicultural arts, entertainment, sports and cuisine, based totally on a segregated past that held people of color within a single location in Los Angeles county, during the era of Jim Crow.

CE-Dunbar Hotel Ad-4-24-1929
California Eagle -April 24, 1929

CE-Lincoln Theater-9-30-1927
California Eagle -September 30, 1927

Central Ave.-Ascot and 38th-Long Beach Ave.-ii
The Heart of Central Avenue of South Central Los Angeles – Exposition Park to the West, City of Vernon to the East.

Ross Snyder Park-1928-ii
White Sox Park next to Snyder-Ross Park – 38th and Compton

The structure of the Girl Reserves baseball teams were initiated as intramural contests between young middle school aged girls through young women approaching college age within their own YWCA branch. Each contest was supposed last for a short period of time in order to receive the completion requirements, as one of the items listed on Honors System roll. The women of Los Angeles took the Girl Reserves baseball to a different level of competitive sports within the ranks of the YWCA organization.

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Under the Honors List, section 1, subsection (C), number 45, listed of the “Outdoor Activities”, a Girl Reserves was to “Know the different positions on a baseball diamond and how to keep score.“. And (46), “Play on an organized team for four weeks.“. Daily exercises options included in, “EXERCISES FOR GIRL RESERVES AND OTHER TEENAGE GIRLS”, were batting and stretching movements to be performed twice daily, morning and night,  for ten minutes.

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The Girl Reserve Movement A Manual For Advisers – 1918

The Los Angeles area Girl Reserves movement was not indoor baseball. The home field for the Eastside Girls was Ross-Synder Park, which was located right next to White Sox Park, home of the California Winter League, which at that time existed in the same block of 38th Street and Compton Avenue. A lot of these young women more than likely witnessed the Philadelphia Royal Giants three years in a row, and were inspired by their awesome skills on the diamond.

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California Eagle -May 6, 1927

As for the integration of baseball aspects of the Girl Reserve league, they challenged and accepted all comers, very much like many games that took place at White Sox Park. The league was prominent enough to draw the attention of fight promoter Carlo Curtis, who owned and operated Main Street Athletic Club, and also promoted such fighters as Fidel LaBarba and Rocky Marciano.

Carlo Curis Main Street Gym
Carlo Curtis with Fidel LaBarba and Rocky Marciano at the Main Street Athletic Club

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CE-Eastside Girl Baseball Team Practing Hard 4-8-1927

California Eagle – April 8. 1927

Their notoriety was mentioned in newspapers as far away as Pennsylvania.

Pittsburg Courier***12th Street-PC-Eastside and other teams-1927

Pittsburgh PA Courier – Jan. 27, 1927

In the years that preceded the Great Depression, the Girl Reserves of Los Angeles county were a big draw in every community, but very little is known about their exploits so far as statistics go. Eastside Girls, Westside Girls, Carlos Curtis’s Girls, the Dodecagenians, the Golden Poppy Girls, the Pasadena Girls, the 12th Street Girls, the Japanese Girls, and Jessie Rayford’s Red Sox made up this league play, that held series that were often played in White Sox Park, in front of sell out crowds.

***CE-Rayfords Red Sox Play Eastside Girls Return Match At White Sox Park Aug 18 | 8-10-1928

California Eagle – August 10, 1928

Genevieve Hawkins (Eastside Girls), Otis “Babe” Wiggins (Eastside Girls), Jessie Rayford (Westside Girls), Quincella Nickerson (Dodecagenians), Jessie Mae Nickerson (Dodecagenians), were a few of the well noted players in the league, and were outstanding athletes in their own right, although most were known for other accomplishments or societal gossip. Otis “Babe” Wiggins was a prominent Southern California tennis star years before Althea Gibson would take African American women to international tennis fame, and Jessie Rayford was a world class track star of Olympic caliber before Wilma Rudolph. Most of these women played basketball as well, but baseball was what they were noted for excelling at.

The Nickerson sisters, Quincella and Jessie Mae, were the daughters of  William Nickerson Jr., founder an President of Golden State Mutual Insurance Company; the” largest black-owned insurance company in the West”.

Quincella is better known for her short lived, supposed ‘tryst’ with Jesse Owens. The story itself made no sense, other than the fact than Jesse was a national track star, staying in the dorms with some members of Sigma Chi frat house at U.S.C., which was about two miles from the heart of Central Avenue. Quincella introduced Jesse to the unfamiliar territory of Los Angeles, as one of Central Avenue’s famous and elite daughters. She was his escort when he was being introduced to Hollywood’s rich and famous, and their arranged companionship was more than likely at the request of her father.

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Jesse Owens and Quincella Nickerson – Los Angeles, July 2, 1935

When we talk about segregation and baseball, the tendency is to exclude the African American woman from this scenario, thereby excluding her importance as an athlete of historical representation, never quite certain of where her entry point into the world of sports began. The African American female was not merely a spectator of baseball, and other sports as well in those early years; she was also a vital participant that helped grow the sport to what it is today.  Those Eastside Girls remind us of how things that followed them, evolved into some of the greatest baseball ever played.