If you’re interested in minor league research, you should check out Carlos Bauer’s blog. He put up a series of good posts recently on independent minor leagues, which are usually ignored by historians. His posts are about the early 1920s in particular, when independent circuits, many of them industrial leagues, sprang up all over the country and spent heavily to attract top players from the established minors and even the major leagues. He says that major-league salaries were driven up by 50 percent by 1923-24; inflation was a factor, but primarily he thinks it was due to competition from these indy leagues, which he calls “the first real threat to Organized Baseball.”
By the way, these sorts of teams and leagues are usually referred to as “semipro.” This was the accepted usage in the newspapers of the time; but keep in mind that professional black teams were often classified as semipro, as well, even after the Negro Leagues were founded. For many of them, “independent professional” is certainly a better description, as the teams played well in excess of 100 games a season.
If you do any research on eastern African-American baseball in the early 1920s, one of the first things you’ll notice is how often the top black teams played white independent teams. These games were well-reported in the black press, especially in 1921. The Chicago Defender devoted especially lavish coverage (including several play-by-play accounts) to games between black teams and a white club called the Tesreau Bears.
Tesreau was, of course, Jeff Tesreau, formerly of the New York Giants. He walked away from the Giants during the 1918 season while still clearly a major-league quality pitcher. Where he went was the New York City independent pro scene, playing for teams with names like the Killers and the Treat ‘Em Roughs. In 1920 promoters organized a whole team around him, the Bears, which included several former major leaguers and lasted (to my knowledge) through the 1921 season. (So far, I’ve found no mention of the team in 1922.) The Bears played their home games in Dyckman Oval (near the Harlem Ship Canal), the home of Alex Pompez’s Cubans for many years.
(Tesreau's bio at the SABR site has more details about his decision to leave the Giants and his career as a semipro pitcher and coach of the Dartmouth baseball team. I'm somewhat puzzled, though, at its characterization of the Bears as a "New England team." They played in New York City nearly every weekend in 1921...but maybe there's more to the story. Perhaps the Bears split time between New York and some New England location. It would certainly make sense if he was coaching at Dartmouth. I'll see if I can find out.)
In 1921, the Bears played 35 games (that I know of) against the best black teams in the east—the Lincoln Giants, Cuban Stars, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Bacharach Giants, and Hilldale—plus the Chicago American Giants, champions of the western Negro National League. The Bears won 20 and lost 15.
Some of the Bears’ players are easily identifiable. These include:
Jeff Tesreau himself, p
Larry Doyle, 2b (who only played in two games, to my knowledge)
Manuel Cueto, 3b, a fine Cuban League player who was much better than his brief major league career suggests
Harry Wolter, 1b, another former major leaguer and PCL batting champ.
But for most of the rest I only know what I’ve found out from period newspapers. If anybody has any information whatsoever on who these guys might have been, where else they might played—anything at all—I’d love to hear about it.
Buster Brown, 3b/manager, a fixture on the New York independent scene—I have no idea if he is the same as this guy. Brown was injured before the season began, and I have him appearing in only a September 19 doubleheader against the Bushwicks.
Willie Kelleher, p, the team’s other ace
Frankie Kelleher, p
Paddy Smith, c, probably the best of the everyday players other than Cueto
Dietz, ss, whose name appears in NY-area box scores going back at least to 1919
T. Taguer / Tagner, rf
J. or S. Taguer / Tagner, 2b
J. or R. Kelly, 1b
E. Kelly, cf
H. Kelly, p (two or more of the Kellys could well be the same person)
NOTE: Researching early 1920s black and independent baseball in New York City is quite difficult, for two reasons: 1) of the major black papers, the New York Age decided to stop printing box scores during these years (and didn’t resume until 1925 at the earliest), and the New York Amsterdam News before 1923 isn’t on the standard microfilm edition; and 2) of mainstream papers, only the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on black and independent games. The rest—the Times, American, World, Herald-Tribune—stuck to the majors, the high minors, and maybe a few college games.
This is actually highly unusual for the times. In every other American city I’ve researched in the early twenties, semipro, Negro League, amateur, high school, church league, and even sometimes grammar school baseball is reported on, sometimes with whole pages of box scores. It is a general principle that the bigger the city, the more haphazard and perfunctory the Negro League coverage is, the explanation probably being that smaller and mid-size cities had fewer entertainment options and local news events to compete with baseball games; in places like Birmingham, Memphis, Kansas City, or Cincinnati, to name a few cities whose daily papers printed generally excellent box scores and decent (though often brief) game stories, a Negro League or semipro was a much bigger deal than it was in Manhattan. New York is really unusual, though, in that most of its major papers made no attempt whatsoever to cover independent baseball—even though New York City was the hotbed of this kind of activity, with dozens of teams and several ballparks devoted to semipro and black baseball.
It could also be an issue of which editions have been preserved on microfilm—perhaps editions with more local coverage weren’t kept by libraries.
Anyhow, if anybody has any insights on finding researching independent baseball in New York City in the early 1920s, let me know!