I concluded an earlier column in this space, about the dedication of Sol White’s grave marker, with: “While no family came to Sol’s aid in his last years, his burial record listed his marital state as “separated” … so further research may yet reveal whether he was survived at death by his wife or any children.” Talking about this state of affairs on that day with baseball historian Jim Overmyer, I was hoping that he would pick up the baton, and he has done so, splendidly, in the article below. This was preceded by his sharing some of his genealogical finds with me via email. Jim is the author of two books and a contributor to several others on Negro League baseball. He was a member of the special committee which elected Sol White and 16 other black baseball players and executives to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and its Negro League and Nineteenth Century committees.
Sol White, the nineteenth century black player who became a manager and front office executive in the Negro Leagues, received a long overdue honor on May 10 when a headstone on his previously unmarked grave was dedicated in an African-American cemetery in New York City. White, the last deceased member of the Baseball Hall of Fame to have a gravestone, was remembered for his exploits on the playing field and the dugout, but also for his writing. He was black baseball’s first historian. Sol White’s History of Colored Baseball, published in 1907, is the starting point for black baseball scholars following his path.
Later a baseball columnist for African-American newspapers, White’s body of work tells much about the black part of professional baseball. Despite all his writing, he left precious little behind when he died in 1955 about his 86-year personal life. The praise he received on May 10 was almost completely about his baseball career. He somehow managed to avoid being enumerated in the U.S. Census between 1900 and 1930, although he may have been counted in 1920, and family information was mostly limited to the scraps in his obituary and what has been discovered about his early years in his hometown of Bellaire, Ohio.
But hardly anyone remains anonymous in the Internet age, even if he has been dead for almost 59 years. King Solomon White (he always seems to have gone by his middle name) left a clue behind: his death certificate states that, although “separated,” he had a wife, Florence Fields. Running that clue through genealogical websites and online historical African-American newspapers has turned up the outlines of White’s domestic life, although in truth it doesn’t seem to have been very domestic, and had its unhappy episodes.
White was 37 and managing the Philadelphia Giants, a premier black team in the era before the Negro Leagues were founded, when he and Florence went the short distance from Philadelphia to Delaware, probably Wilmington, to get married on Thursday, March 15, 1906. Florence was 19 and a Philadelphia native (she lived with her parents, George and Joanna). It’s not clear why Sol and Florence would have gone to Delaware to get married, but she was three months pregnant at the time with their first child, and it’s possible, though speculative, that relations with George and Joanna might not have been completely cordial. The Fields residence at 854 Watt Street was where the family lived in April 1908, however, when the child, Paran Walter White (named after one of Sol’s brothers), died of kidney disease, at the age of a year and a half. His death followed the passing in August 1907 of a baby boy who had only lived two days.
A daughter, Marion, was born in 1909 and survived to adulthood, outliving her father. She and her mother were still living with the Fields family in April 1910 when that census was taken. Sol might well have been residing in New York City at point, having been hired to manage the Brooklyn Royal Giants that season. But Florence and Marion are counted again with Mr. and Mrs. Fields in the 1920 census, and then with Mr. Fields in 1930 (his wife having died). Sol never appears in the household, and in 1930 Florence is identified as a “widow,” although her husband would live for 25 years more. White by then had spent several summers in the baseball business, from the Eastern Seaboard to Ohio, and Florence White was pretty likely a “baseball widow,” a spouse given short shrift by her husband in favor of his occupation. But informing a census taker is like filing an official report. Possibly Florence’s attitude was that her wandering husband was “dead to me.”
There is little information about even White’s professional whereabouts between 1912, when he left his last Eastern team, and 1921, when he successfully lobbied for a Negro National League team in Columbus, Ohio. While the accuracy of census and other information about him is not as definitive as the Philadelphia information about his family, it appears that White was living in Columbus at least a few years earlier than the creation of his Columbus Buckeyes in 1921. As early as February 1918 the black newspaper the Chicago Defender wrote about Sol’s desire to run a team in Columbus. In 1919 he was writing a regular baseball column for the black Cleveland Advocate, openly pushing for a major black team in Columbus and writing about a game there on July 4 between a visiting black team and a local white squad in such detail that it seemed that he must have been there.
He probably was. The 1920 Columbus census has only one White named Sol, or Solomon, for that matter, living in the city. This man was a light-skinned Negro (Mulatto was the census-taking term, and that was a good physical description for Sol) employed as a house servant in a well-off white household. This would seem to be quite a comedown for a leading black baseball figure, but remember that White had been out of that business for awhile and undoubtedly wasn’t making much money writing a sports column for an African-American weekly. The Sol White in the census was 49 when the headcount was taken in January, while the baseball Sol would have been 51, but genealogists who use census reports know that through reporting or recording errors, small discrepancies over facts such as age aren’t unusual. The Columbus Sol White lists his parents as having been born in West Virginia, though, while the 1870 census of the White family taken when Sol was only two says his mother, the head of the family then, was born in Virginia. This seeming discrepancy might not be one, however. The Whites lived on the Ohio side of the Ohio River, across from Wheeling, West Virginia. Wheeling, of course, was in Virginia when Julia White was born in 1838, but changed states, without moving an inch, when the western half of the state split off to remain in the Union at the time of the Civil War.
The William D. Brickell in whose house the Columbus Sol lived was owner of a brick-making company, but this was his second career. He had been a newspaperman, owner of the Columbus daily paper, the Dispatch, until 1910. There he was credited with launching the career of Ralph W. Tyler, an aspiring reporter who became one of the leading black journalists in the Midwest in the years before and after World War I. Tyler was the editor of the Cleveland Advocate, the paper that published White’s baseball columns in 1919. It’s not too much of a stretch to conceive of a relationship among the three men, most likely centering on Tyler’s friendship with both, that could lead to Sol living in the Brickell household.
There is at least a possibility that White and Tyler traveled together to Chicago in June 1920 to attend the Republican national convention at which Ohio favorite son Warren G. Harding was nominated for the Presidency. It’s clear they both attended. Tyler was there to cover the events. And the Defender’s Cleveland correspondent noted in his June 12 report that “Sol White of Columbus passed through the city Friday en route to the convention in Chicago.” The facts supporting the Columbus information on White don’t come as neatly wrapped up as those from Philadelphia that document the life of Florence Fields. But the circumstantial evidence, as it accumulates, is strong.
This is also the case with the later threads of the Philadelphia portion of the story, which continues on at the same time. In the 1940 census Florence White, her father now also apparently passed on, (and still calling herself a widow) is a lodger in someone else’s house in Philadelphia, working as a “tassel maker” in a factory that makes decorative fringe. Another lodger there is a black restaurant worker named Charles Ewell. Ewell, at 32, is 21 years younger than Florence, and presumably of no particular interest to her. But, she’s still got a daughter, now 31. Marion isn’t with her mother in 1940, and doesn’t show up in the Philadelphia census. But, over in Harrisburg resides a Marian White, of the correct race and age, working as a government stenographer. This might not be Sol’s daughter, but it’s certainly possible that she might have adopted the more usual feminine form of her first name. And she is the only female African-American Marian (or Marion) White of approximately the correct age recorded in Pennsylvania in this census who isn’t either a wife of a man named White or the daughter of different parents.
Wherever she was in 1940, by 1955 Sol White’s daughter may well have been married to Florence’s fellow lodger. Sol’s obituary in the New York Amsterdam News listed a daughter, “Mrs. Charles Ewell,” among the survivors. A Charles Ewell served in the military during World War II, making him eligible for a postwar bonus from the State of Pennsylvania. His 1950 application for the money identifies his beneficiary as “Marian V. Ewell” of 1603 Oxford Street in Philadelphia. Subsequent phone and city directories have the couple at the same address into the 1990s. Then, the Social Security Death Index, which records the particulars of recipients who have received their last monthly government check (when they died, in other words), notes the passing of a Marian V. Ewell, born in 1909, in Pittsburgh in September 1992.
Is this the same Marian Ewell? Who knows, at this point. And if it is, what’s she doing in Pittsburgh, rather than Philadelphia? That’s another good question. The resolution of these points are important, because when Sol White was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, he had no known descendants. Commissioner Selig accepted the plaque on the family’s behalf. If the group of researchers working to uncover White’s genealogical details find that the Pittsburgh Marian Ewell is, in fact, his daughter (or that there was a different Marian Ewell who may have never left Philadelphia), there is a chance that grandchildren or great-grandchildren may be located. Already Ralph Carhart, a Society for American Baseball Research member from New York who spoke about White’s baseball accomplishments at the cemetery, has been on the telephone contacting people named Ewell in the Pittsburgh phonebook, and recruiting a few to do some further digging for him there. Stay tuned.
Sport matters. So do the individuals or teams of high character and winning ways whose exploits may move multitudes to raise them to the level of heroes, and in the process stand a bit taller themselves. But in the cult of celebrity that grips us now, the routine activities of ordinary men are more amply analyzed than the greatest feats in all the world’s history of sport.
The big four American team sports, plus tennis, golf, NASCAR, and other individual pursuits, have not always been the focus of this nation’s ardor, let alone the world’s. (We will set to one side for this column British cigarette cards celebrating stars of cricket, soccer, tennis, etc.) Only a century ago, when trading cards were given away with cigarettes rather than with candy or bubble gum — and never sold by themselves — football, hockey, golf, and tennis were barely represented and basketball not at all. Baseball was dominant, but card sets to then had featured champions of billiards, boxing, sharpshooting, pedestrianism, sculling, bowling, and horseracing.
Before the turn of the century, champion walker Edward Weston or sharpshooter Annie Oakley, jockey Isaac Murphy or oarsman Ned Hanlan were culture heroes of a greater magnitude than any baseball or football player. And boxer John L. Sullivan was the most famous man in North America in any field of endeavor. Collegiate football was becoming a national obsession by the late 1880s, but aside from an 1894 set of 36 players from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the only football player depicted in a card set was Captain Henry Beecher of Yale in the 1888 Goodwin Champions, a 50-card set containing only eight baseball players.
Forty-five years later the Goudey Gum Company issued a 48-card “Sport Kings” set that spoke to the country’s changed tastes while honoring stars of the past, too. The checklist includes the first basketball cards ever (Nat Holman, Ed Wachter, Joe Lapchick, Eddie Burke); the first pro football cards (Red Grange and Jim Thorpe, although both were honored more for their amateur accomplishments); the first U.S. issued hockey cards (Eddie Shore, Howie Morenz, Ace Bailey, Ching Johnson); swimmers Helene Madison, Johnny Weissmuller, and Duke Kahanamoku; skater Irving Jaffee and hurdler Babe Didrickson. There were tennis players, aviators, jockeys, cyclists, wrestlers, golfers, billiardists, skiers, even a speedboat racer and a dogsled champion.
If the world of bygone sports has a compact model, this card set is it. Today’s arena of sport stars seems impoverished by comparison. Think of how one might compose a 48-card set of today’s North American “sport kings” and queens … and then there are the sports the rest of the world plays! Here’s a quick test of your world-sports acumen. Match the athlete with his or her sport and nation. Answers will be found at the bottom of the page, upside down.
A World Sports Hall of Fame may just be what we need now. There are halls of fame for baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and almost any other sport you can name … but until now none for the world of sport. Why, one might ask, do we need another? This quiz may provide an answer: the guess here is that you will have fallen far short of a perfect score.
On Saturday, May 10, at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on Staten Island, Sol White’s gravesite, unmarked since his death in 1955, received a new headstone. The effort was funded by SABR’s Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project, led by Dr. Jeremy Krock since 2003, when it place a monument above the final resting place of the great Jimmie Crutchfield. To date, this noble effort has produced thirty markers, including one other member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Frank Grant. Today it can be said that no member of the Baseball Hall of Fame lies in an unmarked grave.
In a ceremony that ran for two hours or so, Sol’s place in baseball history was noted by several speakers and celebrated with song, instrumental accompaniment, and a drum corps from St. Philips Baptist Church. Patricia Willis, CEO of Friends of Frederick Douglass, presided over the ceremony; state and city government officials offered their remarks and support.
I attended on behalf of Major League Baseball and Commissioner Selig, for whom history matters. Below is my brief declamation, followed by a biography prepared by Peter Mancuso and Ralph Carhart of the Society for American Baseball Research, and recited by the latter.
I am pleased to be here in my official role as historian for Major League Baseball, tending the respects of the Commissioner and all those who work and play in this great game. In no other sport does the past matter the way it does in baseball—linked by its players, its teams, its statistics, its unending stories … enriching generation after generation. Baseball provides a family album filled with snapshots of fervently remembered players, an extended family that connects the living with the long bygone.
Sol White had seemed to be on the outside looking in, a faintly recalled figure of such antiquity that his footprints were no longer visible on baseball’s long road. Bud Fowler had been another such figure, but his memory was recently revived in Cooperstown with a special day and a special way named in his honor. Fowler did not enter the Baseball Hall of Fame with the great Class of 2006, but Sol White did, alongside fellow forgotten luminary and teammate Frank Grant, by all accounts the greatest black player of the nineteenth century.
Born in Massachusetts, Grant died in New York City in 1937, but for reasons hard to reconstruct he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Clifton, New Jersey. One of Grant’s pallbearers was Sol White, who would last another eighteen years only to have his remains, like those of Frank Grant, interred in an unmarked grave in a place in which he had never lived.
When Sol White wrote his History of Colored Baseball, it was later said of him, “his object in telling his story is to let some of the younger fellows know something of what is behind them—something of the struggles that have made possible the improved conditions of the present.” White’s invaluable history, like the efforts of those here today to erect a lasting memorial to him, commits us to understand the past on its own terms, and to preserve it as a useful living heritage.
Like Lady Liberty, baseball lifts a lamp to the entire world. It is a meritocracy more nearly perfect than the nation whose pastime it is, and as such can be both inspiration and scold. “Second only to death as a leveler,” wrote Alan Sangree of baseball in 1907, the year of Sol White’s book.
Twenty years ago I wrote: “America, independent and separate, is a lonely nation in which culture, class, ideology, and creed fail to unite us; baseball is the tie that binds. While the imperative for Americans has always been to forge ahead, in search of the new, baseball has always been about the past. In this land of opportunity, a man must venture forth to make his own way. Baseball is about coming home.”
Today Sol White is at last safe at home.
His biography, as offered at the ceremony:
King Solomon White – better known as Sol White – was born in Bellaire, Ohio, very near West Virginia, on June 12, 1868, three years and two months after Lee surrendered to Grant to end the Civil War. His mother, Judith, was born in Virginia, as were four older siblings, all before or during the War. With Emancipation, Judith took the children to Ohio and Sol became the first member of his family to be born on free soil.
According to Jay Hurd, who wrote White’s biographical profile for SABR’s Bioproject: “Bellaire, Ohio, had three white teams, the Lilies, the Browns, and the Globes. As a boy Sol hung around the Globes and then in 1883 when they had an engagement with the Marietta, Ohio team one of the Globe players got his finger smashed, and since they all knew Sol, the captain pushed him into the game.” [quotation from a newspaper piece in the Pittsburgh Courier of March 12, 1927 by Floyd J. Calvin; see: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/2f9d1227]
Just to enhance the storybook quality of fifteen-year-old Sol’s entrance into baseball, the captain of the Marietta team was Ban Johnson, who would later become founder and president of the American League. As an older man, Sol took pride in telling the tale of having played against Johnson when Ban was an obscure captain of a small town club.
Sol White’s professional career began in 1886 after three years barnstorming with the Globes. After a season with the York Monarchs of Pennsylvania, White joined the Wheeling Green Stockings, an integrated team in West Virginia, the same season that baseball first started to institute the tragic color line. White would manage to play on integrated teams for five years, during which he never hit lower than .324; in 159 minor league games he hit .356, scored 174 runs, and stole 54 bases.
Although primarily an infielder, at 5’9”, 170 pounds, White could play nearly any position. During the twenty-four years he played the game he traveled across this country hundreds of times, playing for more teams than this speech can contain, so we’ve provided you a chronology to help you understand just how many miles on the train Sol traveled for his beloved game. [e.g. see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/12/28/sol-white-recalls-baseballs-greatest-days/]
But Sol was more than than a player. As Major League Baseball’s Official Historian, John Thorn has noted, “Sol White wasn’t just a sure-handed, line-drive-hitting infielder in black baseball of the nineteenth century; he was one of its founding fathers, and its historian.”
White also stood apart from many of his contemporaries for another reason. As biographer Jay Hurd states, “Sol White was known to be an intelligent and insightful man, using his mental acuity as well as his physical ability.”
From 1896-1900 Sol White split time between classes at Wilberforce College (now Wilberforce University) in Xenia, Ohio, as a theology major while playing for the Cuban X Giants. He received high grades while he was there and it’s this academic side to Sol that perhaps contributes to his greatest legacy.
It was in the early twentieth century, while with the Philadelphia Giants as player/manager and executive, that White published his “Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide.” The Guide was copyrighted in 1907 by Sol and H. Walter Schlichter, White’s Philadelphia Giants business partner. It is the first record of the black game before 1900 and White’s first-person accounts have been invaluable to our understanding of that world. It is this publication which helps to define Sol White, the ball player, the historian, and the man.
In his Guide, Sol states, “Base ball is a legitimate profession. As much so as any other vocation, and should be fostered by owners and players alike. It is immune from attacks from all critics. From a scientific standpoint, it outclasses all other American games. It should be taken seriously by the colored player, as honest efforts with his great ability will open an avenue in the near future wherein he may walk hand-in-hand with the opposite race in the greatest of all American games – base ball.”
In 1927, when no longer directly involved in playing or managing the game, White moved to Manhattan’s Harlem community during its famous Renaissance, and remained there through the Great Depression, World War II, and beyond while maintaining his connection to baseball by writing columns for the local Amsterdam News and the Philadelphia Item. He lived at 145 West 132nd Street until 1952 when his advancing age and illness required him to be hospitalized.
As highly regarded historians and SABR members Frank Ceresi (recently deceased) and Carol McMains note in their May 2006 Baseball Almanac article “Renaissance Man: Sol White”: “What quiet pride Sol must have felt when, as an old man living alone in Harlem, he saw Jackie Robinson break down the blight on the game we now, quite antiseptically, refer to simply as the ‘color barrier.’”
White died at the age of 87 on August 26, 1955 at the New York State Hospital in Central Islip, Long Island, penniless. He was buried here at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on September 1. He is, to date, the only Baseball Hall of Famer buried on Staten Island.
Sol was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. His plaque in the Hall identifies him as an “outstanding player and manager” of the “Pre-Negro Leagues, 1887-1912” and the “Negro Leagues, 1920-1926”. The plaque also recognizes “Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide of early black baseball teams, players, and playing conditions.”
Prior to his election, the name of Sol White was known to only a few. Even now, he is not one of the more famous names to have played the game. But you here today, you now know a little about the man, if you didn’t before. And I hope that what you’ve learned inspires you to go home and learn even more. Because Sol White, with Rube Foster and others, in the words of writer John Holway, “held black baseball together throughout 60 years of apartheid, making Jackie Robinson’s debut possible.” We honor him today not just for what he represented to the game, but for what he did for his race and for the advancement of mankind. Thank you, Sol.
Now that Sol has been rescued from unmerited obscurity, the public-spirited might turn to the cemetery in which he resides. Frederick Douglass Memorial Park fell on hard times several years ago, overwhelmed by debt, financial scandal, and declining burials. It has been a struggle for its slim staff–one office worker and two groundskeepers–to maintain the grounds and the records. Solvency seems a distant prospect.
In a disquieting note, cemetery ledgers (there is no computer, let alone computerized records) revealed that Sol White was not the only pauper buried in this particular grave. He was the first, but eight other unrelated indigents followed, piling upon him in turn to form a vertical nine in the deep communal plot. Four poor souls were buried within days of White in 1955, and four others followed in December 1988.
While no family came to Sol’s aid in his last years, his burial record listed his marital state as “separated” … so further research may yet reveal whether he was survived at death by his wife or any children.