The two articles I’ve posted about Pop Watkins really disagree only on his birth place and early life. The Watertown Daily Times says Watkins was born on “a plantation near Durham, N. C.,” while the Baltimore Afro-American says Augusta, Georgia. According to the Afro-American, Watkins moved to Brooklyn “as a youngster,” whereas the Daily Times has him starting his baseball career at age 17 with a South Carolina team. On the other hand, they agree that he was 66 and that he played 25 years with the Cuban Giants as a catcher and first baseman. Otherwise, though, they just cover completely different aspects of his life and career.
I wanted to discuss three issues they raise: 1) Watkins’s Manhattan College connection; 2) his career with the Cuban Giants; and 3) his age.
On Manhattan College: the Jaspers have a great baseball tradition and an excellent team dating back until at least the 1870s. While not quite 13 in one year, it is true that from 1902 to 1907 fully ten former Jaspers (Rod Nelson originally sent me this link), including the Colombian-born Luis Castro, debuted in the majors. Watkins was certainly not Manhattan College’s head baseball coach, but he could well have had something to do with the program, and it’s quite possible we might be able to establish that.
On his career with the Cuban Giants: As James E. Brunson points out in the comments to the last post, the Cuban Giants as we know them did not exist in 1882, when the Daily Times claims he joined them. They were founded in 1885.
As far as I can tell, looking through the writings of Sol White, Jerry Malloy, and Michael E. Lomax on the Cuban Giants along with all the standard reference books and what little nineteenth-century material I have, Pop Watkins enters Negro League history in 1899 with the Genuine (or Original) Cuban Giants. This was the name by which John M. Bright’s team became known after Edward B. Lamar founded the Cuban X Giants in 1896 and enticed away most of Bright’s players.
James Riley has Watkins with these teams:
Cuban Giants 1899-1904
Genuine Cuban Giants 1905-1906
Brooklyn Royal Giants 1907-1909
Pop Watkins Stars 1908
The Negro Leagues Book (edited by Dick Clark and Larry Lester) shows F. [sic] “Pop” Watkins with these teams:
Genuine Cuban Giants 1899-1900
Famous Cuban Giants 1905-1906
Pop Watkins Stars 1908
(Clark/Lester has no Watkins on the Royal Giants’ rosters for 1907-1909. A spot check of a few 1908 box scores from the Brooklyn Eagle shows Watkins appearing occasionally at first base for his own team [incidentally called “Watkins’ Colored Giants” rather than the “Pop Watkins Stars”], but not for the Royal Giants.)
If the 1857 birth date for Watkins is accurate, he would have started playing in big time African American baseball at the age of 42—and continued at least until he was all of 51.
I was able to find a Brooklyn family in the 1910 census that matched the detailed information from the Afro-American article. It was headed by one John Watkins, 52, born in Georgia and a salesman of sporting goods (the last column on the right gives the state in which the person was born):
Four sons (not three), one named Raymond, and one daughter. The less common name Raymond Watkins (along with John’s employment in sporting goods) helps to seal the deal. There are all of four black men named Raymond Watkins in the 1910 census. It seems rather more than a coincidence that one of these four lives in Brooklyn with a family that resembles in every particular the one that appears in the Afro-American article.
Walking it backward, I was able to find the same family in 1900, again in Brooklyn. Only here John Watkins, listed as 52 in 1910, is now listed as 30, having been born in March 1870.
The 1870 and 1880 censuses yielded nothing certain, since it’s no longer possible to rely on the names of his wife and children. And if he really were born in the 1850s, he was almost certainly born into slavery, and slaves did not appear by name either in the census proper or in the slave schedules.
Finally, there is Pop Watkins’s death certificate:
Clearly, no one present was able to provide any details about Watkins other than the fact that he had been born in Georgia. Tellingly the attending physician guessed his age to be…40.
None of this constitutes definitive proof that Pop Watkins was not as old as he represented himself (and I certainly don’t think he was only 40 in 1924), but I do think there’s something to the idea. Questions about baseball ages usually involve players claiming to be younger than they are, for obvious reasons; the notion that an athlete might claim the opposite sounds almost crazy to us now. But it might make a lot of sense for a guy nicknamed “Pop.”
Age exaggeration was a fairly common marketing tool, used by both players and sportswriters in the early part of the twentieth century. Satchel Paige was only following a long-established tradition. I have, for example, seen articles in the late 1910s and 1920s that added 10 or 15 years to the ages of Cyclone Joe Williams and John Henry Lloyd (not coincidentally, another “Pop”). The habit persisted for decades, sometimes popping up whether the player in question encouraged it or not. Bus Clarkson shaved three years off his age in an attempt to gain late entry to the major leagues, only to see the Chicago Defender insinuate that he was even older than he actually was.