Adventures in Baseball Archeology: the Negro Leagues, Latin American baseball, J-ball, the minors, the 19th century, and other hidden, overlooked, or unknown corners of baseball history...with occasional forays into other sports.
Robert Sengstacke, heir to the founder of the Chicago Defender, has donated what sounds like hundreds of boxes of files to the Chicago Public Library. I wonder what baseball-related artifacts have lain hidden all these years?
Over the weekend I read Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Steel Drivin’ Man, a book that ought to ring familiar to any reader of this blog in its methods and concerns. Nelson makes a case that he has found the historical original for the folk hero John Henry. I can’t pretend to evaluate his research with any authority, but it certainly sounds plausible. Read the book and see what you think.
I don’t want to give too much away, as it’s a genuine historical detective story. Stop reading if you don’t want even the slightest hint of a spoiler, though I don’t think this is much of one. Assuming Nelson is correct, then here is John Henry’s entry in the 1870 census, as a prisoner in the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond:
I just thought it would be cool to look it up. It’s kind of like seeing Paul Bunyan’s birth certificate or something.
Almost all his life Jack Kerouac had a hobby that even close friends and fellow Beats like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs never knew about. He obsessively played a fantasy baseball game of his own invention, charting the exploits of made-up players like Wino Love, Warby Pepper, Heinie Twiett, Phegus Cody and Zagg Parker, who toiled on imaginary teams named either for cars (the Pittsburgh Plymouths and New York Chevvies, for example) or for colors (the Boston Grays and Cincinnati Blacks).
Rob Neyer investigates an anecdote about Taylor (how he supposedly pinch-hit while drunk in the PCL in 1959) in his fascinating Big Book of Baseball Legends. In the course of his investigation Neyer becomes more interested in the fact that this excellent prospect, “definitely a major league hitter” according to Lefty O’Doul, only joined organized baseball in 1951 at the advanced age of 25.
Neyer checks Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia, which pushes the start of Taylor’s professional career back to 1949 as a catcher with the Chicago American Giants. But 23 is still a very late start. So he turns to Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt’s book Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-1959, and quotes this bit from them:
“Joe Taylor’s baseball career was launched by a sportswriter. Writing for the Pittsburgh Courier, Earl Johnson covered Taylor’s exploits as a sandlot catcher in the Pittsburgh area. Johnson’s articles and personal encouragement helped Taylor gain the confidence to pursue a career in baseball.” (p. 122)
But Neyer doesn’t find this very satisfactory, and concludes that “we wind up with more questions than when we started.”
Now, I’m not an expert on the 1940s, and certainly not on Joe Taylor. From looking at the article about him at the BR Bullpen, it’s apparent there are a number of people who know a lot more about him than I do. But it doesn’t take research to note Taylor’s birth date (March 2, 1926). This would mean he turned eighteen in 1944. And what was going on then? A check of the World War II Army Enlistment Records reveals one Joe C. Taylor, “Negro,” born in 1926 in Alabama, joining the Army on July 27, 1944, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
This is not a momentary blind spot. Neyer and Eddie Epstein, in their enjoyable book Baseball Dynasties, write, “At another point in this book, we suggest that perhaps wartime teams really can’t be taken too seriously because the talent base was so depleted. However, this wasn’t so true in the Negro Leagues, as most of the top black players played right on through the early ‘40s” (p. 227). A couple of sentences later they cite the aging trio of Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard, none of whom served in the military during the war, their ages ranging from 30 to 39 at the start of the draft in 1942.
Readers of this blog probably know that this is patently not the case. Plenty of Negro League ballplayers missed time to the war, and it certainly affected the quality of the teams and leagues. Moreover the war must have hindered the careers of black players just as much as it did white players. There’s not only Cecil Travis, there’s also Monte Irvin. And it goes beyond those who were already established Negro Leaguers. Note that the list of players in military service I linked to above doesn’t include Luke Easter (who served in 1942-43, then worked in war-related industries) or, for that matter, Joe Taylor, presumably because neither actually played in the Negro Leagues until after the war.
Taylor was apparently discharged sometime in 1946 (I don’t have the exact date). His military service must have delayed the start of his baseball career by about two years. Which, at that age, is a pretty big deal. There are other unusual factors in Taylor’s case, not least the fact that he seems to have played softball rather than baseball when he first returned from the army. But the point I want to make is not about Joe Taylor and what a great player he was, or wasn’t, or could have been. It’s what he represents, which is the huge dent the war made in a whole generation of black ballplayers—the generation that just happened to be the one that within a few years would be integrating organized baseball.
We don’t often think about the fact that the first group of African American ballplayers in the majors had already had to pass through the generational crucible of war. Certainly, on an individual level this might have toughened them (insofar as experiences of racism and segregation hadn’t already). But one of the things we don’t know (and probably can’t know) is how many careers got derailed, how many promising black ballplayers lost their skills or abilities or lives on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.
To illustrate, here is a list of black American Hall of Famers arranged by year of birth up through the 1930s, excluding those who were not elected as players (I’m not sure about Rube Foster, but I included him anyway), and including players from Puerto Rico.
1865 Frank Grant 1879 Rube Foster 1882 Pete Hill 1884 John Henry Lloyd 1886 Cyclone Joe Williams 1888 Ben Taylor 1890 Louis Santop 1893 Bullet Rogan 1894 Jud Wilson 1896 Oscar Charleston 1897 Biz Mackey 1898 Andy Cooper 1899 Judy Johnson 1900 Mule Suttles 1901 Turkey Stearnes 1903 Cool Papa Bell 1904 Bill Foster 1905 Willie Wells 1906 Satchel Paige 1907 Buck Leonard 1907 Hilton Smith 1908 Ray Brown 1911 Josh Gibson 1913 Ray Dandridge 1915 Willard Brown 1916 Leon Day 1919 Monte Irvin 1919 Jackie Robinson 1921 Roy Campanella 1923 Larry Doby 1931 Ernie Banks 1931 Willie Mays 1934 Hank Aaron 1934 Roberto Clemente 1935 Bob Gibson 1935 Frank Robinson 1937 Orlando Cepeda 1938 Willie McCovey 1939 Lou Brock
I might easily have missed somebody, but it probably wouldn’t make much difference. Here is the count by decade of birth:
The 1920s produced only two black Hall of Fame players. If you counted Sol White, the twenties would be matched by the 1860s. And there’s the eight-year gap between Larry Doby and Ernie Banks. Some sources say Doby was born in 1924, which would make it a seven-year gap (although there is apparently also some evidence that he was born earlier than 1923). In any case, you have to go back to the gap between Frank Grant and Rube Foster to match or exceed it. Joe Taylor, of course, was born in 1926, right in the midst of this demographic wasteland.
Louis Castro was not the only early twentieth-century baseball figure with Colombian origins. The Long Branch Cubans, who played in minor leagues and independently from 1913 to 1916, were owned by a New York physician named Carlos Louis Henriquez, and managed by his brother, Richard Anthony Henriquez (pictured right), also the team’s first baseman in 1913 and 1914.
Aside from Long Branch, the Cubans also based themselves at various times in Newark, Jersey City, Poughkeepsie, Harlem, and Newton, New Jersey. Especially when they were in Long Branch, a seaside resort town, they played a large number of exhibitions against major league teams, according to David Skinner compiling a record of 10-24 in these games. Most significantly, they helped funnel a number of players, including Adolfo Luque and Mike González, from the Cuban League to U.S. organized baseball.
Although the Henriquez brothers were usually assumed to be Cuban themselves, a number of records show a Colombian connection. In June 1886, about ten months after “Master Louis Castro” and his father Néstor arrived in New York, another family arrived on board the S.S. Niagara from Colombia (via Mexico and Cuba):
The family remained in the United States, appearing in the 1900 census, where the father, Louis N. Henriquez, and children are all born in the “U.S. of Columbia”; the children’s mother, who had passed away by now (Louis is widowed) is shown as born in Cuba.
In the 1910 census the brothers, both married now, are living together on W. 88th Street, the same address later given on some passenger lists by Long Branch Cubans players. Both give Colombia as their birthplace.
They filled out draft cards in 1918, only two years removed from the demise of the Long Branch Cubans. Unfortunately their cards did not ask for birth place. Both checked the space under “Citizen by Father’s Naturalization before Registrant’s Majority,” although Richard seems to have also written, below that, that he is a citizen of Colombia.
Both appeared in the 1920 census, Carlos as “Dr. Carl Henriquez,” listed for the first time as born in Cuba (his parents in South America). Richard’s census entry, on the other hand, is consistent with earlier records, showing born in South America, his father in South America and mother in Cuba). Both of Richard’s sons, one ten years old, the other “6 2/12” (to my eyes; Ancestry.com has recorded his age as 2 9/12), are listed as born in New Jersey.
The last sign of either brother I’ve found so far is Carlos in the 1930 census, living with in Yonkers, listing his employment as “none,” and supposedly born in New York. The names of his wife (“Jeannette”), son (“Carlo” or “Carlos”) and his mother-in-law, Cora Long, establish this as Carlos Henriquez. His name, however, is oddly given as “Henry Carlos Henriquez,” a strong indication that the information here is probably not entirely trustworthy.
The image of Richard Henriquez above is courtesy of David Skinner, but don’t blame him for the poor quality; I lifted it from a photocopied handout for his presentation on the L.B. Cubans.