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
There is still a huge amount of regional black baseball history out there to be unearthed. Numerous small (and usually short-lived) black baseball circuits were scattered around the country that went virtually unnoticed in the national (and even local) press at the time, and have been almost completely forgotten since. The year 1921, for example, produced a bumper crop of small black baseball leagues across the south. I know of at least four—the Negro Southern League, the Negro Southeastern League, and the granddaddy of them all, the Texas Colored League, along with a North Carolina league that I just ran across for the first time today. From the Charlotte Observer, March 22, 1921:
I’ve found references to two of the other teams, the Charlotte Red Sox and the Spartanburg Sluggers, but have no idea how long the Blue Ridge Colored League lasted, assuming it even got off the ground. Whatever its fate, the league’s existence serves as a reminder of the now nearly invisible substratum of town teams and amateur and semi-pro ball that fed players to the big Negro league clubs.
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):
(click to enlarge)
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.
(click to enlarge)
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:
(click to enlarge)
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.
Pop Watkins died on February 22, 1924, in Durham, North Carolina, where he had wintered for several years (he had also coached baseball at Shaw University in Raleigh). Here is an obituary from the Watertown, New York, Daily Times (February 26, 1924, p. 18). The version of the article I have (from the Fulton History website) is a little difficult to read, so I’ve typed it out. There are some obvious differences between this piece and the Afro-American article summarized yesterday, which I’ll take up in the next post.
“POP” WATKINS DIES IN SOUTH Colored Baseball Mentor Dead at Durham, N. C. PILOTED HAVANA RED SOX Team Made Watertown Its Headquarters For Several Season.
(SPECIAL TO THE TIMES.)
Durham, N. C., Feb. 25—“Pop” Watkins, veteran colored baseball manager, died at his home here on Friday afternoon following a short illness, aged 66 years. Although the leader of the Havana Red Sox had been in poor health for the past several months, his condition had never been regarded as serious. Mr. Watkins arrived here from Watertown the latter part of last year. During the past few months he had been busily engaged in organizing a strong barnstorming team.
When Watkins was not touring the north with his squad of balltossers, he was baseball coach at various colored colleges in the south, his baseball knowledge being recognized throughout the south. For a time he was coach at Hobson college, Irmo, S. C., and also at Shaw University, Durham, N. C.
Funeral services and burial were held today.
John McCreary Watkins, known to thousands of baseball followers as just plain “Pop,” was born on a plantation near Durham, N. C., on May 18, 1857. Shortly after the close of the Civil lWar when baseball began to gain in popularity, “Pop,” who was fascinated by the outdoor game, started on his career as a player.
At the age of 17 years Watkins began playing baseball with the Fox Hunters team in South Carolina and the following year, 1875, he played with the Quick Steps team of Georgia. Up to 1882, he caught with various colored and white baseball teams, before colored players were barred from organized baseball.
“Pop” was a catcher and when in his prime was proclaimed to be the best colored backstop in the country in his days. In 1882 he joined the Cuban Giants, famous colored nine, catching for them for 18 years and playing seven years at first base. He was also captain of this team when he was playing first base.
In May, 1907, after fracturing his leg with the Cuban Giants at Oil City, Pa., “Pop” quit that club and started to organize a team of his own. Being a veteran in the game he experienced no difficulty in forming a formidable outfit which he called the Havana Red Sox. He than began touring the country, but the majority of the games were played in the northeastern tier.
News of “Pop’s” formidable baseball team reached Watertown in 1913 and promoters at once began angling for the appearance of this colored squad in this city. On Sept. 7, 1913, the Red Sox, under “Pop’s” guiding hand, played their first game in Watertown. The colored ball tossers defeated the All-Watertown nine by an 11 to 10 count in a thrilling diamond struggle, which was featured by heavy hitting.
The Havana Red Sox proved to be a big drawing card here and practically every year since 1913 the team has appeared in Watertown. In 1917 the colored team took up its headquarters at Gouverneur, being managed by B. G. Parker of the that village. During the war “Pop’s” team was hard hit when the majority of his players either enlisted or were drafted, and it was not until last season that Watkins brought his squad up to its former strength.
Watkins is well known to thousands of baseball fans throughout northern and central New York where his team has appeared for the greater part of the past eleven years. The Sox have played in Ogdensburg, Alexandria Bay, Potsdam, Adams, Pulaski, Lowville, Croghan, Carthage, Malone, Sandy Creek and other places in this section of the state.
“Pop” was well liked in every town and city in which his team played. In Watertown he was popular among the baseball followers. He possessed a keen sense of humor and was witty in his remarks, both on and off the diamond. “Pop” specialized in keeping the fans amused during the progress of the game by using words that had never seen the inside of Webster’s dictionary. One of his pet words was “excivorating.” Just what he meant by that word the genial colored pilot never disclosed.
“Pop” was well liked by his players and his ability to keep harmony among his team made other colored managers envious. Although he would show his anger at his players when they failed to exhibit any “inside baseball” on the diamond and would shower “you yellar dog” and similar phrase at them, they never rebelled and took it good naturedly.
Without a doubt Mr. Watkins knew more colored baseball stars than any other man in the country. It was through the keen judgment of “Pop” that many players, who formerly took part in sandlot games of the south, are now starring in Chicago and New York city in colored leagues. As soon as “Pop” found that a player had ability he would immediately start to develop it with the result that within a few years the player would be graduated into faster company. “Pop” discovered such famous colored stars as Dixon, Toussaint Allen, Phil Cockerell and Gifford McDonald, all of whom have played here.
“Pop” planned to celebrate his 50th anniversary in baseball this season with a formidable array of colored tossers. Last November before starting for southern climes, the Red Sox manager announced that he would bring a fast team back to Watertown. Since arriving in the south Watkins had written several letters to his friends in this city saying that he planned to return to Watertown in May.
When the Red Sox first appeared in this city “Pop,” equipped with a uniform, would take part in the infield practice and made a fine impression at first base, despite his age. But during the past four years the veteran manager had directed his team from the bench. He discarded the uniform for street clothes. “Pop” was a married man.
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:
HAS SON HERE
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).
Most readers of this blog have probably already seen it, but if you haven’t, check out Scott Simkus’s post on Gilkerson’s Union Giants, an independent second-tier black club of the 1910s, 1920s, and early 1930s run by Robert Gilkerson (co-owner of the Lost Island Giants in 1917):
They were similar to the International League’s Baltimore Orioles, during the Lefty Grove era of the early 1920s. In other words, a dominant minor league team which may have held it’s own, had they played a Major League schedule. Clearly, the Union Giants were better than some of the bottom feeders in the Negro National League, but Mr. Gilkerson had found a niche, traveling to small country towns, where citizens were starved for live entertainment.
The niche the Union Giants occupied also meant that they probably tended to face weaker opposition than the big time Negro League teams Scott compares them to (Homestead Grays, Hilldale, Pittsburgh Crawfords). Still, Steel Arm Davis and Alex Radcliff, among others, were probably in the upper echelon of Negro League players in 1931.
I received a request to type out the names of the 1922 St. Louis Tigers players, as the scan of the article from the Argus was a bit hard to read. Here they are (I updated the post, too):
“Jas. ‘Baby’ White, formerly with Beaumont Oilers, 2b; Elisha Warren,
Galveston Sand Crabs, 3b; William Hines, Houston Buffaloes, 1b; Robert
Davis, All Nations, p; Chas. Hunter, Beaumont, outfield; William
Jackman, Houston, p; Lawson Perry, ss, Thomas Calloway and Lloyd Evans,
outfield, all from Houston; Thos. Gee, c, and Curtis Boyce, p, from the
Galveston Sand Crabs.”
The Tigers, by the way, were supposed to have competed in the Negro Southern League that year, though I do not recall finding any confirmation that they actually did.
Both as a follow-up to my recent Field of Dreams post and as another example of the uses of digitized databases, I wanted to say a little bit about the Lost Island Giants, the team with the evocative name operated by Robert Gilkerson in northern Iowa in 1917.
Gilkerson’s co-owner on this venture was William “Bingo” Bingham, a longtime outfielder for Chicago teams in the 1910s and early 1920s:
(Chicago Defender, May 12, 1917)
I’ve only been able to find a few mentions of the Lost Island Giants in small Iowa papers, and a solitary box score in the Chicago Defender (June 30, 1917):
As it happens, the first draft registration for World War I occurred almost midway between these two articles, on June 5. But for a long time I never found anything associated with this team; in fact, I really hadn’t noted its existence at all.
Then, a few months back, I was trying fruitlessly to track down a pitcher named Ruby Tyree who had appeared with the American Giants early in 1917. Thinking that “Ruby” was a nickname, and thinking that he would have registered for the draft in Chicago since he was playing there right around that time, I checked out the five men named “Tyree” who registered in Cook County (four of them black). But none of them were listed as ballplayers, and besides, the pitcher was supposed to have been quite young, and the youngest of these men was 31 at the time.
Finally, for some reason I don’t remember, it occurred to me to simply search for “Ruby Tyree,” in no particular state, with the “Soundex” function enabled for the last name. This uses an algorithm to find names that are in some way similar to the one you’re looking for, in case of misspellings or transcription errors. And I came up with one “Ruby Tyress,” residing in Ruthven, Palo Alto County, Iowa, a professional ballplayer working for Robert P. Gilkerson:
(click to enlarge any of the images in this post)
As you can see, his name is really “Tyrees”; “Tyress” is an Ancestry.com mistranscription. Given this information I was then able to pin down the ballplayer Ruby P. Tyrees, born 22 July 1891, died 23 November 1965, and buried in Leavenworth National Cemetery.
If one Lost Island Giants player could be found in Palo Alto County, it seemed possible that others could be there as well. A search for black men registered in the county yielded a list of nine names (out of 3,455 total draft registrations). Here’s a screenshot of the Ancestry.com search results:
As it turned out, fully seven of them (including Tyrees) listed themselves as professional ballplayers. This is the single biggest find I’ve made so far in the World War I cards; that is, the biggest haul from one search, one click. I’ve never seen one screen with so many players on it before.
Blackburn appeared briefly for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1920.
Edgar Daniel Burch
I believe this is “Burch,” no first name, who appeared in 1914 with the Indianapolis ABCs (Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia, p. 133).
This, I think, is William Fox Jones, an American Giants’ catcher in the 1910s (Riley, p. 452).
THIS is the major find here, at least for me. I had been looking for Hurley McNair’s WW1 draft card for some time. He’s mistakenly digitized as “Alden McNair,” but the card in fact reads “Allen.” I think he is probably the “Mack” listed in center field in the Defender box score above.
Riley lists B. “Aggie” Turner (p. 794) with the Chicago Union, Chicago Giants, and All Nations in 1916 and 1917.
Now we have a first name for “White” of the Chicago Union Giants (Riley, p. 832).
Robert Gilkerson, incidentally, registered for the draft where he lived, Spring Valley, Illinois, which was also the headquarters for his other team, the Union Giants. Bingham may have registered in Chicago, where one “William Horace Bingham,” born in 1885 and working in the stockyards, can be found in September 1918.
Like a number of other major black teams in the early twentieth century (the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, the West Baden Sprudels and French Lick Plutos of Indiana, the Breakers and Royal Poincianas of Palm Beach, Florida, and the Havana Red Sox of Watertown, New York) the Lost Island Giants were a resort team, intended to entertain well-to-do vacationers. The mysterious-sounding, Field of Dreams-esque name seems to come from Lost Island Lake, located about four miles north of Ruthven, where these ballplayers all resided. Arnold’s Park, which the Defender named as the location of Gilkerson’s team in mid-May, is a historic resort and amusement park on Lake Okoboji in nearby Dickinson County. Whether or not the team moved around to various locations during the summer, I don’t know.
Here is (possibly) the earliest mention found so far of Will Jackman in a baseball context. In 1922 a semi-pro team called the St. Louis Tigers took over the grounds formerly occupied by the St. Louis Giants, and, led by their manager, W.C. Wiley of Galveston, Texas, imported a bunch of players from the Texas Colored League and elsewhere. “William Jackman, Houston, p,” appears in the tenth line from the bottom. (Apologies for the faint image.)
(St. Louis Argus, April 14, 1922, p. 10)
There a few other players of note here, such as Thomas Gee (brother of Richard Gee), who would later catch for the Lincoln Giants and Newark Stars of the Eastern Colored League, and James “Baby” or “Babe” White, who I believe appeared briefly for the St. Louis Stars later in 1922. As far as I can tell, Jackman didn’t stick with the team for long.
Anyway, I wish Dick Thompson were around so I could ask him about it.
As always, thanks to Patrick Rock for the great material from the St. Louis Argus.
UPDATE 2/9/2009 Per Bijan Bayne’s request in comments, here are the players for the St. Louis Tigers, as listed in the article above:
“Jas. “Baby” White, formerly with Beaumont Oilers, 2b; Elisha Warren, Galveston Sand Crabs, 3b; William Hines, Houston Buffaloes, 1b; Robert Davis, All Nations, p; Chas. Hunter, Beaumont, outfield; William Jackman, Houston, p; Lawson Perry, ss; Thomas Calloway and Lloyd Evans, outfield, all from Houston; Thos. Gee, c, and Curtis Boyce, p, from the Galveston Sand Crabs.”
I found a couple of small items in the Indianapolis Freeman (October 23, 1909) identifying the pitcher named “Washington” who filled in for the 1909 Cuban Stars, the team for which Scott Simkus has compiled statistics. Since Harry “Rube” Washington (“one of the best tight pinch pitchers in the country,” according to the Freeman) doesn’t appear in Riley or anywhere else as far as I can tell, I thought I’d pass along the information about him.
In 1910 Washington went on to pitch for the Oklahoma Monarchs
of the Texas Colored League (a circuit I’ll have more to say about soon); he may be the “Washington” Riley lists as
pitching for the St. Louis Giants that year (though I haven’t confirmed