February 22 was the 85th anniversary of the death of John “Pop” Watkins, an influential but now obscure figure in the early history of black baseball. He’s best known for the Havana Red Sox, a team he organized and managed in the 1910s and early 1920s. It was one of those “Cuban” teams with no actual Cubans on it. Their base of operations was usually in upstate New York, including a number of years at Watertown, and they generally played area semipro or amateur teams.
Watkins developed a number of young players who went on to good careers in the Negro Leagues, including Phil Cockrell, Dennis Graham, Toussaint Allen, George Dixon, Luke Archer, and others.
(Syd Pollock, of Indianapolis Clowns fame, would later run a team of genuine Cubans he called the Havana Red Sox. I don’t know if there was any connection with Watkins’s club.)
A while back Rod Nelson sent me an article on Watkins (originally spotted by Kevin Johnson) from the Baltimore Afro-American (July 13, 1923). It’s a little too faded to reproduce here, but I can recap the basics.
These are the headlines:
“Pop” Watkins Is World’s Greatest Base Ball Scout
Discovered John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, John Hummel, Al Schact [sic] and Other Great Diamond Stars
In Baseball 44 Years
Now Devotes His Time To Training Players for Professional Colored Clubs
Watkins, the article says, was “born in Augusta, Ga., sixty-six years ago,” and moved “as a youngster to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was raised.”
The article claims that Watkins played for the Cuban Giants for 25 years, taking the field against major leaguers many times. He suffered three cracked ribs when Honus Wagner crashed into him at first base. “Another souvenir is a scarred lip that was split by a pitched ball delivered by none other than the famous Christy Mathewson.”
Eventually big league clubs began to seek him out for his services as “scout and coach for young players.” Supposedly he discovered the players mentioned in the headline (McGraw, Jennings, Schacht), and the young Jack Dunn (later owner of the Baltimore Orioles) “used to toss them into the mitt of the famous colored scout.”
He also began to work for college teams: “One of the greatest feats ever accomplished by a coach he performed in 1904 when he coached Manhattan College, New York, sending thirteen youngsters up to the big leagues in one season, a record.”
The article winds up with these paragraphs:
Despite his many years on the diamond, Mr. Watkins has found time to marry twice and raise a family of three sons and a daughter. One son, Raymond Watkins, lives in this city [Baltimore] and is employed in the local postoffice, the others are married and living in Utica.
He was very much worried on his trip here for he had just received a telegram that his wife, whose picture, that of a youngish and very comely woman, he showed us proudly, had been taken suddenly ill since he left [Utica].
Shaking hands with “Pop” Watkins one got the impression of a man who was as young as any youngster on his team as far as the game was concerned and still able to play rings around many a colt who imagines he is a ball player.
I’m going to break this into three or four posts, as I’ve got quite a lot of material on Watkins. Next—his 1924 obituary tells a somewhat different story.
Image from the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery (via Rod Nelson). It originally comes from Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide (1907).