A key resource I’ve been using lately to identify otherwise only sketchily-known Negro League players comes from the newspapers of the early 1920s: several articles that list new players joining teams for spring training also list the players’ hometowns. In some cases, it gives us crucial leads to help pinpoint players in other records, especially the census. For example, see this article from the March 20, 1920, Chicago Defender:
This piece has helped in finding Orville Singer, Jack Marshall, James Oldham, and (most of all) Orville Riggins. Riggins, sometimes known as Bill (Riley also has “Bo” and “Junior” as nicknames), was a speedy, switch-hitting infielder who enjoyed a substantial career in the Negro Leagues of the 1920s and 1930s, a key player for the Detroit Stars from 1920 to 1926 and for the Lincoln Giants and their successors in New York from 1928 through 1931.
Unfortunately, though a small handful of people named “Orville Riggins” can be found in records of the period, none of them fits what we know about the Negro League Riggins. But the Defender links him to Colp, Illinois, a very small village in Williamson County, a coal-mining area almost at the southern tip of the state. Searching the 1920 census for people named “Riggins” in Illinois, I came up with “Arva Riggins,” a 19-year-old coal miner living in Blairsville township, Williamson County. He was married to Jennie, and living with his in-laws:
“Arva” could well be a census enumerator’s misunderstanding of “Orville”— but that’s not enough. In the World War I draft cards, however, we find this:
Now we have Arvell Riggins, born on February 7, 1900, living in Colp, Illinois, a miner for the Madison Coal Corporation. He lists as his nearest relative one Dan Riggins, also living in Colp, who, as it turns out, can himself be found in the 1920 census, also a coal miner in Blairsville for the Madison Corporation. His age is given as 54 (so he would have been too old to fill out a draft card just two to three years earlier), and he is a widower.
Then, in the 1930 census, I found an “Awell Riggins,” occupation listed as “Base Ball,” living in New York City (where Riggins was playing for the Lincoln Giants):
When you look closely, it would seem that the name is “Arvell”—the digitization (in this case that of Ancestry.com) is probably wrong. Thus we have a second example of the “Arvell” name, now clearly connected to the ballplayer Riggins. So, it looks like Arvell Riggins’s name was persistently misunderstood as “Orville”—when you think about, spoken aloud it could be hard to tell “Arvell” and “Orville” apart, depending of course on the accent.
His family situation is now somewhat unclear: he’s a lodger with people named Carter, but there is a second Riggins in the household (whose name I can’t quite make out), a 20-year-old woman listed as a “sister” (presumably of John L. Carter, the head of the household). Both Arvell and the female Riggins are listed as married, but you can’t tell from the entries that they are married to each other. At any rate, she is definitely not Jennie Riggins, née Jefferson, who was listed as 22 back in 1920.
Plus, there’s this, from the Chicago Defender (June 18, 1921), describing a game between the Columbus Buckeyes and Riggins’s Detroit Stars:
The baseball Riggins had a son. What had happened to “Baby Riggins” and his mother, Jennie, by 1930? Her family, the Jeffersons, headed by Jennie’s parents William and Lizzie Jefferson, can be found in the 1910 census in Mountain Ash, Kentucky (where Jennie is spelled “Jenny”), and also in the 1930 census, still living in Blairsville, Illinois—except now their residence is identified as located in Colp, which at that time was an unincorporated part of Blairsville:
Listed as “boarders” are two children, William and Lonnie “Riggans.” It seems highly likely that these are the Jeffersons’ grandchildren, the children of Arvell and Jennie. Is William “Baby Riggins”? He’s listed here as only eight, which would be a bit too young, but ages on census forms are notoriously unreliable—in fact, the information could have been given by a neighbor, a family member who didn’t really know, or even guessed at by the enumerator. So he could be. In fact, he could well be alive today. His mother Jennie’s whereabouts in 1930, however, remain unknown.
To sum up: it seems, if all this hangs together, that “Orville” Riggins was really Arvell Riggins, born February 7, 1900, in either Missouri or Illinois (the census records differ), to a father from Georgia (where, by the way, most black families named Riggins lived in the early twentieth century), possibly Dan Riggins, and a mother from Tennessee (who would have died before 1920, if Dan was the father). He had at least two children, boys named William and Lonnie, the first of whom might have been pictured in the Chicago Defender in 1921, who were living with their mothers’ parents in 1930. And there are indications (though they are not conclusive) that Arvell Riggins had been divorced or widowed and had remarried by 1930.