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.
Check out the new issue of Black Ball, A Negro Leagues Journal, edited by Leslie Heaphy, which includes (among other things) a nice biographical piece on Biz Mackey, an article on the “colored sporting fraternity” of late 19th-century Cleveland (or rather, how it was portrayed in the Cleveland Gazette), and, most relevantly to this blog, an article by Geri Strecker on the uses of digitized databases, in particular Ancestry.com, for Negro League research. Oh, and there’s also a book review by yours truly of Severo Nieto’s Early U.S. Blackball Teams in Cuba, in which I attempt daring linguistic experiments such as beginning two straight sentences with the word “However.”
I’ll probably write up a more detailed consideration of the Nieto book, since the core of it (box score and statistics for Negro League visits to Cuba) is something I have covered extensively here, and a lot of what I have to say about it wouldn’t have really fit into the book-review format.
These rosters for the 1920 Negro National League are from an article on the league’s founding in the February 21, 1920, Chicago Defender:
There are only six teams here, with the Cuban Stars and Dayton Marcos missing. “Baro” (Bernardo Baró) is listed with the Monarchs, so apparently it was not yet decided that Tinti Molina would field a team.
Note that “Walter Muir” (presumably Walter “Dobie” Moore) and “Wilbur Rogan” are already listed with the Kansas City Monarchs, nearly five months before they first appeared in the league (on July 3 in St. Louis). The meeting was in Kansas City, and Rogan is known to have been at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis in January. Dave Wyatt wrote in the July 10, 1920, Defender that Wilkinson had signed Rogan “early last spring.”
There are some oddities about this article, which lacks a byline. For one thing, it states that the league, called here (as it was frequently in its early years) the “Western Circuit” of the “National Baseball League,” was not to begin operation until the following year, 1921. Also, it claims that the newspaper men at the meeting (including the Defender’s Cary B. Lewis) were to “select players for the various teams….No manager had aught to say about players.” An odd situation, if true at all; it would be very surprising if Rube Foster ceded control over his team’s roster to a bunch of reporters. And this assertion certainly conflicts with other accounts of the league’s founding and the assignment of players.
I’ve been intending to link to this for a while. Over at Baseball Think Factory, this thread on Ichiro Suzuki’s Hall of Fame chances from back in July morphed, somehow, into a sprawling, not-always very polite argument about Negro League statistics, specifically whether or not one can prove that Josh Gibson was the greatest-hitting catcher of all time.
If you have the patience to wade through the 900+ posts (and a lot of snark and aggressive ignorance), there are some gems there, particularly this post (post #436; it should be on top if I’ve done this link correctly). It’s a satirical little thought experiment about what might have happened had baseball continued to be segregated to the present day and how tough-minded analysts and “skeptical” mainstream fans might view the best black players of the past few decades, had those players been forced to ply their trade in obscure and poorly-documented Negro Leagues.
On November 23, 1986, the bowler George Branham III became the first African-American to win a PBA event when he took the Brunswick Memorial World Open in Glendale Heights, Illinois. He has enjoyed a substantial career since then, winning five major championships (including the Tournament of Champions in 1993). Branham was born on November 21, 1962, in Detroit, Michigan, to parents Betty and George Branham II.
Looking at it from the other direction, our George Branham, the Jewell’s A.B.C.’s pitcher (and possibly pitcher for NNL teams in the 1920s) and brother of Finest/Finis Branham, had a son named George, his youngest child (listed as one year old) in the 1930 census (in Detroit).
So it seems like there’s an awfully good chance that the first black bowling champion in PBA history was the grandson and great-nephew of Negro League ballplayers. Though I can’t yet definitively link George Branham III to the Negro League George Branham, it should be easy enough to figure out eventually. I’m going to be looking into getting in touch with Branham. In the meantime, if anyone knows anything about this, drop me a line.
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.
I’ll be out of the country until the 22nd; in the meantime, here are a few interesting finds from World War I draft registration cards:
Cyclone Joe Williams, listing his employer as James J. Keenan, and his place of employment as Olympic Field:
Edgar Wesley, slugging first baseman for the Detroit Stars. Note that Wesley, three years before the founding of the Negro National League, lists his occupation as “Professional Base Ball Player,” employed in Hot Springs, Arkansas:
Cannonball Dick Redding, signed with his mark:
John Beckwith, at age 17 18 incarcerated in the Illinois State Reformatory. As you may have noticed, the state reformatory’s name is stamped in the space for his place of employment; I shouldn’t have assumed he was incarcerated there, especially since he was actually 18 at the time, which I also somehow messed up. He gives an address that belongs to Dean Beckwith, mentioned below as his nearest relative.
Here’s another example of an artifact that for years researchers thought simply didn’t exist: pages from the 1926 Hilldale scorebook, for a September 21 game with the Harrisburg Giants in Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. Hilldale won, 8 to 6, despite a ninth-inning Giants’ rally capped by a two-run home run off the bat of John Beckwith.
In Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia, we find the following description of Hall of FamerLouis Santop’s military service: “Santop missed most of the next two seasons (1918-19) due to Navy service during World War I, but after the Armistice he stayed with Ed Bolden’s Hilldale club for the remainder of his career…” On the other hand, John Holway lists Louis Santop as the regular catcher for both Hilldale and the Brooklyn Royal Giants in 1918, and for Brooklyn in 1919.
In the Chicago Defender for 1918, Santop shows up several times with Hilldale, until this note appears in the July 27 issue:
And in the same issue:
Interestingly, Camp Dix, New Jersey, was an Army base, though Santop was supposed to have been in the Navy. Even more interestingly, Santop apparently continued to play for Hilldale throughout the rest of the summer. I found a reference to him, for example, in an article about the American Giants’ tour of the east coast (Defender 8/10/18). Referring to a game played on Thursday, August 1 (an 8-7 win by Hilldale), Dave Wyatt wrote this: “Santop, the human freight car, pulled off the dirtiest piece of work on Gans that was ever witnessed on a ball lot; this, too, with ‘Judy’ leaving for Camp Grant on Saturday.” (I’d like to know exactly what he did to Jude Gans!) Incidentally, Wyatt also says that Tom Williams, also supposed to have been drafted with Santop, started the game for Hilldale. Then Santop pops up in the summary of another American Giants/Hilldale game on Sunday, August 11 (getting a triple and being hit by a pitch), and gets a mention in a short item on an undated game against the “Kauffman Club” (Defender 8/17/18).
In the August 17 Defender, an explanation appears:
That’s quite an injury. You have to wonder whether it was overstated a little, whether by the newspaper, the doctors, or Santop himself. Would it really be possible to catch professionally if you couldn’t even handle a gun or salute? If it wasn’t exaggerated, it would certainly have strongly shaped Santop’s baseball career (although he continued to catch regularly at least through 1921).
Anyway, Santop, along with Tom Williams, is mentioned in another, undated game against the Cuban Stars in the August 31 Defender; then in a September 5 Hilldale game vs. the Turner Field Club (Defender 9/7/1918). In late September, Santop played for Hilldale against a Camp Dix team featuring Leroy Roberts and “Yank” Deas of the Bacharach Giants (Defender 9/28/18).
Finally Santop did get into the military, but as a Navy stevedore (Defender 11/9/18):
So what about 1919? When did he get out of the service?
This is from the Chicago Defender, May 31, 1919. The Royal Giants/Bushwicks doubleheader would have been played on the previous Sunday, May 25. Note that H. B. Harris, the friend who held the testimonial dinner for Santop back when he was going in the Army, was the Royal Giants’ new business manager, which gives some background to Santop’s signing with them.
So, bottom line: Santop actually played professional, non-military baseball for all of the 1918 season, and most of the 1919 season, starting on May 25.
I thought I’d mention a couple of good books I’ve been reading lately, both of which should be of great interest to anybody who reads this blog:
1) Phil Dixon's American Baseball Chronicles, Volume Three: The 1905 Philadelphia Giants painstakingly describes the entire season for this Sol White-piloted club. This complete, game-by-game survey is, as far as I know, unprecedented in the literature, and gives the most thorough account yet produced of a black baseball team during a single season. That it covers such an early and still only sketchily-known team makes the book all the more worthwhile. As with his previous work on the Kansas City Monarchs, Phil has attempted to chronicle every game, including games against semi-pro opponents that formed the bulk of the Giants’ schedule. He has found box scores for 130 of 149 known games (Sol White reported that altogether the team played 158), most of them against white independent professional or semi-pro teams, although the schedule also included top black opponents (notably the Brooklyn Royal Giants) and white minor league teams. (The semi-pro teams were often bolstered by current or former major leaguers.) This book is a treasure house of details, many wholly unexpected, about, for example, Grant “Home Run” Johnson’s pitching (which was quite good), and Bill Monroe’s “hilarious antics” on the field, which were often the feature of newspaper accounts. (Phil also has a website with additional material on the ’05 Giants and other subjects.)
2) Pricier but also good is Baseball’s First Colored World Series by Larry Lester, which details the 1924 classic between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Hilldale Club, and includes a reproduction of an entire program for one of the games played in Philadelphia. Larry also gives us full batting and pitching statistics for each team for the 1924 season, and play-by-play accounts of each World Series game, along with the historical background and sketches of all the players. Particularly interesting is his account of José Méndez working with Dobie Moore to make him a better shortstop: Moore had to undergo a rather grueling regimen of fielding ground balls and throwing to first for two hours every morning, with every wide throw adding fifteen minutes to practice.
Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for Severo Nieto’s Early U.S. Blackball Teams in Cuba, which promises to bring a wealth of the legendary Cuban historian’s materials, including box scores, to an American audience. Among many other things, I’m hopeful that this will shed light on the 1900 and 1903 Cuban X-Giants’ Cuban tours, for which I have yet to locate box scores.