August 19th, 2014
Part 1 of Jerry Malloy’s masterful essay appeared yesterday and may be viewed here: http://goo.gl/nSfhX4.
In 1886 an attempt had been made to form the Southern League of Colored Base Ballists, centered in Jacksonville, Florida. Little is known about this circuit, since it was so short lived and received no national and very little local press coverage. Late in 1886, though, Walter S. Brown of Pittsburgh announced his plan of forming the National Colored Base Ball League. It, too, would have a brief existence. But unlike its Southern predecessor, Brown’s Colored League received wide publicity.
The November 18, 1886, issue of Sporting Life announced that Brown already had lined up five teams. Despite the decision of the Cuban Giants not to join the league, Brown called an organizational meeting at Eureka Hall in Pittsburgh on December 9,1886. Delegates from Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Louisville attended. Representatives from Chicago and Cincinnati also were present as prospective investors, Cincinnati being represented by Bud Fowler.
Final details were ironed out at a meeting at the Douglass Institute in Baltimore in March 1887. The seven-team league consisted of the Keystones of Pittsburgh, Browns of Cincinnati, Capitol Citys of Washington, Resolutes of Boston, Falls City of Louisville, Lord Baltimores of Baltimore, Gorhams of New York, and Pythians of Philadelphia. (The Pythians had been the first black nine to play a white team in history, beating the City Items 27-17 on September 18,1869.) [This finding since superseded–jt] Reach Sporting Goods agreed to provide gold medals for batting and fielding leaders in exchange for the league’s use of the Reach ball. Players’ salaries would range from $10 to $75 per month. In recognition of its questionable financial position, the league set up an “experimental” season, with a short schedule and many open dates.
“Experimental” or not, the Colored League received the protection of the National Agreement, which was the structure of Organized Baseball law that divided up markets and gave teams the exclusive right to players’ contracts. Sporting Life doubted that the league would benefit from this protection “as there is little probability of a wholesale raid upon its ranks even should it live the season out—a highly improbable contingency.” Participation in the National Agreement was more a matter of prestige than of practical benefit. Under the headline “Do They Need Protection?” Sporting Life wrote:
The progress of the Colored League will be watched with considerable interest. There have been prominent colored base ball clubs throughout the country for many years past, but this is their initiative year in launching forth on a league scale by forming a league . . . representing . . . leading cities of the country. The League will attempt to secure the protection of the National Agreement. This can only be done with the consent of all the National Agreement clubs in whose territories the colored clubs are located. This consent should be obtainable, as these clubs can in no sense be considered rivals to the white clubs nor are they likely to hurt the latter in the least financially. Still the League can get along without protection. The value of the latter to the white clubs lies in that it guarantees a club undisturbed possession of its players. There is not likely to be much of a scramble for colored players. Only two [sic] such players are now employed in professional white clubs, and the number is not likely to be ever materially increased owing to the high standard of play required and to the popular prejudice against any considerable mixture of races.
Despite the gloomy—and accurate—forecasts, the Colored League opened its season with much fanfare at Recreation Park in Pittsburgh on May 6,1887. Following “a grand street parade and a brass band concert,” about 1200 spectators watched the visiting Gorhams of New York defeat the Keystones, 11-8.
Although Walter Brown did not officially acknowledge the demise of the Colored League for three more weeks, it was obvious within a matter of days that the circuit was in deep trouble. The Resolutes of Boston traveled to Louisville to play the Falls City club on May 8. While in Louisville, the Boston franchise collapsed, stranding its players. The league quickly dwindled to three teams, then expired. Weeks later, Boston’s players were still marooned in Louisville. “At last accounts,” reported The Sporting News, “most of the Colored Leaguers were working their way home doing little turns in barbershops and waiting on table in hotels.” One of the vagabonds was Sol White, then nineteen years old, who had played for the Keystones of Pittsburgh. He made his way to Wheeling, West Virginia, where he completed the season playing for that city’s entry in the Ohio State League. (Three other blacks in that league besides White were Welday Walker, catcher N. Higgins, and another catcher, Richard Johnson.) Twenty years later he wrote:
The [Colored] League, on the whole, was without substantial backing and consequently did not last a week. But the short time of its existence served to bring out the fact that colored ball players of ability were numerous.
Although independent black teams would enjoy varying degrees of success throughout the years, thirty-three seasons would pass before Andrew “Rube” Foster would achieve Walter Brown’s ambitious dream of 1887: a stable all-Negro professional baseball league.
The International League season was getting under way. In preseason exhibitions against major league teams, Grant’s play was frequently described as “brilliant.” Sporting Life cited the “brilliant work of Grant,” his “number of difficult one-handed catches,” and his “special fielding displays” in successive games in April. Even in an 18-4 loss to Philadelphia, “Grant, the colored second baseman, was the lion of the afternoon. His exhibition was unusually brilliant.”
Stovey got off to a shaky start, as Newark lost to Brooklyn 12-4 in the team’s exhibition opener. “Walker was clever—exceedingly clever behind the bat,” wrote the Newark Daily Journal, “yet threw wildly several times.” A few days later, though, Newark’s “colored battery” performed magnificently in a 3-2 loss at the Polo Grounds to the New York Giants, the favorite National League team of the Newark fans (hence the nickname “Little Giants”). Stovey was “remarkably effective,” and Walker threw out the Giants’ John Montgomery Ward at second base, “something that but few catchers have been able to accomplish.” The play of Stovey and Walker impressed the New York sportswriters, as well as New York Giants’ Captain Ward and manager Jim Mutrie who, according to White, “made an offer to buy the release of the ‘Spanish Battery,’ but [Newark] Manager Hackett informed him they were not on sale.”
Stovey and Walker were becoming very popular. The Binghamton Leader had this to say about the big southpaw:
Well, they put Stovey in the box again yesterday. You recollect Stovey, of course—the brunette fellow with the sinister fin and the demonic delivery. Well, he pitched yesterday, and, as of yore, he teased the Bingos. He has such a knack of tossing up balls that appear as large as an alderman’s opinion of himself, but you cannot hit ‘em with a cellar door. There’s no use in talking, but that Stovey can do funny things with a ball. Once, we noticed, he aimed a ball right at a Bing’s commissary department, and when the Bingo spilled himself on the glebe to give that ball the right of way, it just turned a sharp corner and careened over the dish to the tune of “one strike.” What’s the use of bucking against a fellow that can throw at the flag-staff and make it curve into the water pail?
Walker, too, impressed fans and writers with his defensive skill and baserunning. In a game against Buffalo, “Walker was like a fence behind the home-plate . . . [T]here might have been a river ten feet behind him and not a ball would have gone into it.” Waxing poetic, one scribe wrote:
There is a catcher named Walker
Who behind the bat is a corker,
He throws to a base
With ease and with grace,
And steals ’round the bags like a stalker.
Who were the other black ballplayers in the IL? Oswego, unsuccessful in signing George Williams away from the Cuban Giants, added Randolph Jackson, a second baseman from Ilion, New York, to their roster after a recommendation from Bud Fowler. (Ilion is near Cooperstown; Fowler’s real name was John Jackson— coincidence?) He played his first game on May 28. In a 5-4 loss to Newark he “played a remarkable game and hit for a double and a single, besides making the finest catch ever made on the grounds,” wrote Sporting Life. Jackson played only three more games before the Oswego franchise folded on May 31, 1887.
Binghamton, which already had Bud Fowler, added a black pitcher named Renfroe (whose first name is unknown). Renfroe had pitched for the Memphis team in the Southern League of Colored Base Ballists in 1886, where “he won every game he pitched but one, averaging twelve strikeouts a game for nine games. In his first game against Chattanooga he struck out the first nine men who came to bat,” wrote the Memphis Appeal; “he has great speed and a very deceptive down-shoot.” Renfroe pitched his first game for Binghamton on May 30, a 14-9 victory over Utica, before several thousand fans.
“How far will this mania for engaging colored players go?” asked Sporting Life. “At the present rate of progress the International League may ere many moons change its title to ‘Colored League.’ ” During the last few days in May, seven blacks were playing in the league: Walker and Stovey for Newark, Fowler and Renfroe for Binghamton, Grant for Buffalo, Jackson for Oswego, and one player not yet mentioned: Robert Higgins. For his story, we back up and consider the state of the Syracuse Stars.
The 1887 season opened with Syracuse in a state, of disarray. Off the field, ownership was reorganized after a lengthy and costly court battle in which the Stars were held liable for injuries suffered by a fan, John A. Cole, when he fell from a grandstand in 1886. Another fall that disturbed management was that of its team’s standing, from first in 1885 to a dismal sixth in 1886. Determined to infuse new talent into the club, Syracuse signed seven players from the defunct Southern League after the 1886 season. Although these players were talented, the move appeared to be backfiring when, even before the season began, reports began circulating that the Southern League men had formed a “clique” to foist their opinions on management. The directors wanted to sign as manager Charley Hackett, who, as we have seen, subsequently signed with Newark. But the clique insisted that they would play for Syracuse only if Jim Gifford, who had hired them, was named manager. The directors felt that Gifford was too lax, yet acquiesced to the players’ demand. By the end of April, the Toronto World was reporting:
Already we hear talk of “cliqueism” in the Syracuse Club, and if there be any truth to the bushel of statement that team is certain to be doomed before the season is well under way. Their ability to play a winning game is unquestioned, but if the clique exists the club will lose when losing is the policy of the party element.
Another offseason acquisition for the Stars was a catcher named Dick Male, from Zanesville, Ohio. Soon after he was signed in November 1886, rumors surfaced that “Male” was actually a black named Dick Johnson. Male mounted his own public relations campaign to quell these rumors. The Syracuse correspondent to Sporting Life wrote:
Much has been said of late about Male, one of our catchers, being a colored man, whose correct name is said to be Johnson. I have seen a photo of Male, and he is not a colored man by a large majority. If he is he has sent some other fellow’s picture.
The Sporting News’ Syracuse writer informed his readers that “Male . . . writes that the man calling him a negro is himself a black liar.”
Male’s performance proved less than satisfactory and he was released by Syracuse shortly after a 20-3 drubbing at the hands of Pittsburgh in a preseason game, in which Male played right field, caught, and allowed tliree passed balls. Early in May he signed with Zanesville of the Ohio State League, where he once again became a black catcher named Johnson.
As the season began, the alarming specter of selective support by the Southern League players became increasingly apparent. They would do their best for deaf-mute pitcher Ed Dundon, who was a fellow refugee, but would go through the motions when Doug Crothers or Con Murphy pitched for the Stars. Jim Gifford, the Stars’ manager, not equal to the task of controlling his team, resigned on May 17. He was replaced by “Ice Water” Joe Simmons, who had managed Walker at Waterbury in 1886.
Simmons began his regime at Syracuse by signing a nineteen-year-old lefthanded black pitcher named Robert Higgins. Like Renfroe, Higgins was from Memphis, and it was reported that manager Sneed of Memphis “would have signed him long ago . . . but for the prejudice down there against colored men.” Besides his talents as a pitcher Higgins was so fast on the basepaths that Sporting Life claimed that he had even greater speed than Mike Slattery of Toronto, who himself was fast enough to steal 112 bases in 1887, an International League record to this day.
On May 23, two days after he signed with the Stars, Higgins pitched well in an exhibition game at Lockport, New York, winning 16-5. On May 25 the Stars made their first trip of the season to Toronto, where in the presence of 1,000 fans, Higgins pitched in his first International League game. The Toronto World accurately summed up the game with its simple headline: “DISGRACEFUL BASEBALL.” The Star team “distinguished itself by a most disgusting exhibition.” In a blatant attempt to make Higgins look bad, the Stars lost 28-8. “Marr, Bittman, and Beard . . . seemed to want the Toronto team to knock Higgins out of the box, and time and again they fielded so badly that the home team were enabled to secure many hits after the side should have been retired. In several instances these players carried out their plans in the most glaring manner. Fumbles and muffs of easy fly balls were frequent occurrences, but Higgins retained control of his temper and smiled at every move of the clique . . . Marr, Bittman, Beard and Jantzen played like schoolboys.” Of Toronto’s 28 runs, 21 were unearned. Higgins’ catcher, Jantzen, had three passed balls, three wild throws, and three strikeouts, incurring his manager’s wrath to the degree that he was fined $50 and suspended. (On June 3 Jantzen was reinstated, only to be released on July 7.) The Sporting News reported the game prominently under the headlines: “THE SYRACUSE PLOTTERS; The Star Team Broken Up by a Multitude of Cliques; The Southern Boys Refuse to Support the Colored Pitcher.” The group of Southern League players was called the “Ku-Klux coterie” by the Syracuse correspondent, who hoped that player Harry Jacoby would dissociate himself from the group. “If it is true that he is a member of the Star Ku-Klux-Klan to kill off Higgins, the negro, he has made a mistake. His friends did not expect it. . . .”
According to the Newark Daily Journal, “Members of the Syracuse team make no secret of their boycott against Higgins. . . . They succeeded in running Male out of the club and they will do the same with Higgins.” Yet when the club returned to Syracuse, Higgins pitched his first game at Star Park on May 31, beating Oswego 11-4. Sporting Life assured its readers that “the Syracuse Stars supported [Higgins] in fine style.”
But Bob Higgins had not yet forded the troubled waters of integrated baseball. On the afternoon of Saturday, June 4, in a game featuring opposing Negro pitchers, Syracuse and Higgins defeated Binghamton and Renfroe 10-4 before 1,500 fans at Star Park. Syracuse pilot Joe Simmons instructed his players to report the next morning to P. S. Ryder’s gallery to have the team portrait taken. Two players did not comply, left fielder Henry Simon and pitcher Doug Crothers. The Syracuse correspondent for The Sporting News reported:
The manager surmised at once that there was “a nigger in the fence” and that those players had not reported because; the colored pitcher, Higgins, was to be included in the club portrait. He went over to see Crothers and found that he was right. Crothers would not sit in a group for his picture with Higgins.
After an angry exchange, Simmons informed Crothers that he would be suspended for the remainder of the season. The volatile Crothers accused Simmons of leaving debts in every city he had managed, then punched him. The manager and his pitcher were quickly separated.
There may have been an economic motive that fanned the flames of Crothers’ temper, which was explosive even under the best of circumstances: he was having a disappointing season when Simmons hired a rival and potential replacement for him. According to The Sporting News’ man in Syracuse, Crothers was not above contriving to hinder the performance of another pitcher, Dundon, by getting him liquored-up on the night before he was scheduled to pitch.
Crothers, who was from St. Louis, later explained his refusal to sit in the team portrait:
I don’t know as people in the North can appreciate my feelings on the subject. I am a Southerner by birth, and I tell you I would have my heart cut out before I would consent to have my picture in the group. I could tell you a very sad story of injuries done my family, but it is personal history. My father would have kicked me out of the house had I allowed my picture to be taken in that group.
Crothers’ suspension lasted only until June 18, when he apologized to his manager and was reinstated. In the meantime he had earned $25 per game pitching for “amateur” clubs. On July 2, he was released by Syracuse. Before the season ended, he played for Hamilton of the International League, and in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, all the while threatening to sue the Syracuse directors for $125.
Harry Simon, a native of Utica, New York, was not punished in any way for his failure to appear for the team portrait; of course, he did not compound his insubordination by punching his manager. The Toronto World-was cynical, yet plausible, in commenting that Simon “is such a valuable player, his offense [against Higgins] seems to have been overlooked.” The sporting press emphasized that Crothers was punished for his failure to pose with Higgins more than his fisticuffs with Simmons.
Thus in a period of ten days did Bob Higgins become the unwilling focus of attention in the national press, as the International League grappled with the question of race. Neither of these incidents—the attempt to discredit him with intentionally bad play nor the reluctance of white players to be photographed with a black teammate—was unprecedented. The day before the Stars’ appointment with the photographer, the Toronto World reported that in 1886 the Buffalo players refused to have their team photographed because of the presence of Frank Grant, which made it seem unlikely that the Bisons would have a team portrait taken in 1887 (nonetheless, they did). That Canadian paper, ever vigilant lest the presence of black ballplayers besmirch the game, also reported, ominously, that “The recent trouble among the Buffalo players originated from their dislike to [sic] Grant, the colored player. It is said that the latter’s effective use of a club alone saved him from a drubbing at the hands of other members of the team.”
Binghamton did not make a smooth, serene transition into integrated baseball. Renfroe took a tough 7-6 eleven-inning loss at the hands of Syracuse on June 2, eight days after Higgins’ 28-8 loss to Toronto. “The Bings did not support Renfroe yesterday,” said the Binghamton Daily Leader, “and many think the shabby work was intentional.”
On July 7, Fowler and Renfroe were released. In recognition of his considerable talent, Fowler was released only upon the condition that he would not sign with any other team in the International League. Fowler joined the Cuban Giants briefly, by August was manager of the (Negro) Gorham Club of New York, and he finished the season playing in Montpelier, Vermont.
On August 8, the Newark Daily Journal reported, “The players of the Binghamton base ball club were . . . fined $50 each by the directors because six weeks ago they refused to go on the field unless Fowler, the colored second baseman, was removed.” In view of the fact that two weeks after these fines were imposed the Binghamton franchise folded, it may be that the club’s investors were motivated less by a tender regard for social justice than by a desire to cut their financial losses.
According to the Oswego Palladium, even an International League umpire fanned the flames of prejudice:
It is said that [Billy] Hoover, the umpire, stated in Binghamton that he would always decide against a team employing a colored player, on a close point. Why not dispense with Mr. Hoover’s services if this is true? It would be a good thing for Oswego if we had a few players like Fowler and Grant.
There were incidents that indicated support for a color-blind policy in baseball. For example:
A citizen of Rochester has published a card in the Union and Advertiser of that city, in which he rebukes the Rochester Sunday Herald for abusing Stovey on account of his color. He says: “The young man simply discharged his duty to his club in whitewashing the Rochesters if he could. Such comments certainly do not help the home team; neither are they creditable to a paper published in a Christian community. So far as I know, Mr. Stovey has been a gentleman in his club, and should be treated with the same respect as other players.
But the accumulation of events both on and off the field drew national attention to the International League’s growing controversy over the black players. The forces lining up against the blacks were formidable and determined, and the most vociferous opposition to integrated baseball came from Toronto, where in a game with Buffalo on July 27, “The crowd confined itself to blowing their horns and shouting, ‘Kill the nigger’.” The Toronto World, under the headline “THE COLORED BALL PLAYERS DISTASTEFUL,” declared:
The World’s statement of the existence of a clique in the Syracuse team to “boy cott” Higgins, the colored pitcher, is certain to create considerable talk, if it does not amount to more, in baseball circles. A number of colored players are now in the International League, and to put it mildly their presence is distasteful to the other players. … So far none of the clubs, with the exception of Syracuse, have openly shown their dislike to play with those men, but the feeling is known to exist and may unexpectedly come to the front. The chief reason given for McGlone’s* refusal to sign with Buffalo this season is that he objected to playing with Grant.
* John McGlone’s scruples in this regard apparently were malleable enough to respond to changes in his career fortunes. In September 1888 he signed with Syracuse, thereby acquiring two black teammates—Fleet Walker and Bob Higgins.
A few weeks later the World averred, in a statement reprinted in Sporting Life:
There is a feeling, and a rather strong one too, that an effort be made to exclude colored players from the International League. Their presence on the teams has not been productive of satisfactory results, and good players as some of them have shown themselves, it would seem advisable to take action of some kind, looking either to their non-engagement or compelling the other element to play with them.
Action was about to be taken.