tagNovels and NovellasThe Storytellers Ch. 12

The Storytellers Ch. 12

byParis Waterman©

Chapter 12

The Color Barrier as Bill Saw It & Albert Spalding


Bill's host, the Reverend Howard Pentecost's brown eyes crinkled at the corners. "C'mon," he said, "we'll be more comfortable in my office."

He led me up the aisle to the front of the church then turned to the right. We went through a door and I found myself in a small, but very comfortable office with a desk and two chairs.

He settled in behind the desk, opened a drawer and took out two glasses. Taking the whiskey from his suit jacket, he poured us both a drink.

As I sipped mine, he reached into his jacket pocket and produced a Cuban cigar and carefully lit it with a kitchen match. He held the match in the air, still burning and watched the flame crawl close to his finger tips. He blew it out at the last possible second, and dropped it in the ash tray on his desk then cackled at me: "Think I wuz gonna burn myself?"

"Not after all the practice you've had. All those years, all those fine cigars...."

"Yeah, all them fine cigars..." He appeared to be off chasing a memory.

"You know," Bill said, "I ain't sure, but it seems that these here cigars had a better taste about forty years ago. Could be wrong, but it sure seems that way." "Let's get back on track, Bill."

"Sure, what do you want to talk about?"

"How about you telling me some of the memories you have of that first year or so with Hartford?"

"Just random like? I mean, I can't rightly recall things in the order they happened."

"That would be fine, Bill."

He started laughing, then almost choked, but after bringing up some phlegm, regained his composure and laughed. "Maybe I should have picked a healthier person."

I waited. He gave me a cagy look and began talking. "Okay, my first year in the big leagues I saw this guy... lemmie see, I know his name like the back of my hand...um, he wuz a first baseman from New Haven name of Waite, Charlie Waite. I remember laughing at him. Here I wuz catching bare-handed and this clown is wearing a glove to protect his itty-bitty fingers from throws by the infielders!

"You know, I shouldn't have been laughing at him, 'cause before you could say Jack Robinson − Al Spaulding, the pitcher, wuz wearing one too. He told everyone who bothered to ask that his hand hurt from - now get a load of this horse-shit − bruises he got from catching the return throws from his catcher! Well, to be fair he also claimed batted balls coming back at him hurt his hands as well, and I won't argue that.

"I'll have more to say about Mr. Albert Spaulding later on. But for the moment I'll just say he wuz a hell-of-a pitcher, glove or no glove. But you asked me what I recall from that first year in the majors, didn't you?"

"Yes, that's right, Bill, it can be anything. I just want to get a feel for what was going on at the time."

"Yeah, well there wuz the time old Dick Higham hit into the first triple play in the history of the National League against the Mutuals. It's funny because even though they pulled off the triple play, we walloped 'em 28-3, or something like that. Anyway we also set another record that day scoring 15 runs in the... um, fourth inning I think it was."

"Now that's good stuff. People will enjoy reading about that. Anything else?"

His brown eyes lit up. "Yeah, there wuz a series with Chicago where we got our ass handed to us. In the first game they scored in every inning but one. I think it wuz the first or second inning. But this guy they had, name of Cal McVey got himself six hits that day."

"That's unusual enough," I said, "Six hits, yeah that's some hitting."

"Did it again the next day, too." Bill said nonchalantly. "Crushed us something like 23-3. McVey went on to record 18 hits in the four game series. In fact he hit in 30 straight games. And in the third game of the series, another guy, name of Ross Barnes, got himself six hits against us. We lost that one as well. See the thing wuz our regular pitchers weren't able to take the mound on account of food poisoning. We had to grab two guys off the street. Oh they wuz local ball players and not all that bad, but Chicago wuz seeing the ball pretty good, and the locals were probably known to them, as they played each other on Sundays, you know? What I'm saying is the Blue Laws prohibited Big leaguers from playing on the Sabbath."

"Our pitching wuz actually pretty good that year. And once our boys were able to play again we did very well.

Another memory must have occurred to Bill as his brown eyes flashed, and he blurted: "Oh, yeah! We kinda got even in a way later in the season, Chicago come to town and we pulled the hidden-ball trick on Cap Anson of all people. I'd never seen it done before, but the way it happened wuz our shortstop, Tom Cary, you remember, he showed me around the whore houses?"

"I remember, Bill."

"Well he kept the ball instead of handing it to the pitcher. Now Anson wuz on third and strolled off the bag, intent of watching the pitcher, who wuz fiddlin' around waiting to see what Tom would do with the ball. Anyway, to make a long story short, Anson takes that one extra step off the base and Tom wings the ball over to Bob Ferguson playing third. Of course he puts the tag on Anson, who is livid with rage at getting caught like that."

"He was a pretty famous player," I said.

"He was, got over 3000 hits and all. As a manager, he took his Chicago team to five pennants. And if you count his five years in the National Association, he played 27 seasons in the big leagues and was a regular each year."

"You sound like you're holding something back, are you?"

"Hmmm, I wuzn't going there, but that son-of-a-bitch is the one single person responsible for keeping players like Jackie Robinson out of the majors all those years.

"I thought it was the owners, like Clark Griffith."

"He wuz one of 'em too. But it wuz Anson started all the bullshit about them being inferior. You see, back in 1890 or so, there wuz quite a few colored players in the minors. They could play the game as well as any white-skinned guys and the fans came out to see them play. That meant the owners had an interest in them as anything that brought money in was right up their alley.

"Some of the colored players of the day that I recall wuz Bud Fowler, George Stovey, Frank Grant and Sol White, anyone of 'em could have played in the big leagues. They did play some in the in the International Association, as it wuz sometimes called in the mid-1880s.

George Stovey, a lefty, had two good years, one with Jersey City in 1886, and another with Newark in 1887 when he won 34 games.

"Mind you, the International League was maybe a step lower than the majors; what with the constant expansion and contraction of franchises I think it moot when comparing the players.

Stovey's battery mate with Newark was a colored kid named Moses Walker, making them the first black battery in organized baseball history. The next year Walker shifted to Syracuse, where he caught Bob Higgins, who had a 20-7 record in 1888.

"As I recollect, Bud Fowler hit about .350 with Binghamton in 1887; and old Frank Grant was with Buffalo, where he hit .366. In my opinion, Grant wuz probably the best colored player in the 19th Century, and wuz with Buffalo for three years, 1886-88, a record for a colored player with a white team.

"Getting back to Cap Anson and the coloreds... his team wuz supposed to play the Newark team, but he told the Newark owner he wouldn't let his team 'set foot on the same field as any nigger played on.' Well the Chicago team wuz a great drawing card, and there wuz a big crowd showed up to see them. So the cowardly owner set Moses Walker down. But it wuzn't enough for that bastard Anson. He demanded Walker be released and not resigned after he left town. The owner agreed and that wuz that.

Walker wuz the last colored player to play in the International League. There wuz a couple guys managed to get some play in the lower minors, but that didn't last very long since there wuz no future for them and the team owners couldn't make any money trading them.

"Now, I saw Walker play with Toledo in the American Association which wuz a major league at the time. He got off to a poor start and then his teammates made him look worse than he was.

Someone wrote a poem about him, don't recall who, but it went:

There was a catcher named Walker, Who behind the plate is a corker. He throws to a base with ease and with grace, And steals 'round the bags like a stalker.

"Wonder why I wuz hung up on Walker? Walker was a catcher, and I wuz looking at catchers... well, you know why."

"Anson didn't stop there. No sir, he got a full head of steam and blocked John Montgomery Ward from signing George Stovey to a major league contract. As I said earlier, Stovey went 34 -- 15 with Newark -- only to be released. So his performance wuzn't the reason they let him go,it wuz his color, pure and simple.

"But Cap Anson wasn't alone in his intolerance against the nig... sorry, I should'a said, colored. It's just that that was what most everyone called them back then. These days, they're called colored, and that's fine with me. I always tried to judge a person by their actions and ability, not their race. I mean, look at me, I'm a nig... I mean a Negro preacher at the moment. I know how it feels to be put upon, and take it from me they have been put upon something terrible since coming to this great country of ours as slaves.

"But the colored didn't walk away from the game, no sir. They set up their own teams, and some of 'em wuz pretty good. There wuz the Chicago Leland Giants who gave the Cubs fits in '09. And in Havana, several colored players hooked up with a team named the Reds and won two out of three from of major leaguers including Addie Joss and Three Finger Brown. Then they played Detroit and took four of six from Cobb and his mates. Fella name of John Henry Lloyd wuz their best player; hit over .350 against good major league pitching. I would've signed him and some others in a minute if they'd of let me. I might of won a pennant or two with them fella's, dad gum it!"

"Since we're talking about colored folk, I did see a hell-of-a fighter, named Joe Gans, from Baltimore, who was the light-heavyweight champion in '02, and probably already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him six years layer.

He lost that night to a Danish born puncher out of Chicago known as "Battling Nelson." I never saw Jack Johnson, but he musta been something, 'cause everyone in the know talked him up as the cat's meow."

"After 1889 there wuzn't another colored ballplayer to play in the bigs until Mr. Rickey brought Jackie Robinson up."

Wanting to question Bill's memory with respect to recent years, I asked, "Did you know that Bill Veeck tried to bring colored players to the Majors, um, I think it was 1943?"

"I heard about that, yeah. It wuz a neat trick he tried to pull off. Veeck's a shrewd baseball man.

The Phillies sucked. As the 1942 season came to an end, the Phillies were in their customary spot, last place, for the fifth year in a row. Home attendance was sad. I don't think they drew 250,000."

"That's right, Bill. Gerry Nugent, the owner, was a savvy baseball executive, but he had no money and for years had performed feats of financial legerdemain simply to keep the club afloat. Now he was in debt to the league, after an advance that had enabled the team to go to spring training in 1942, and in arrears for the rent owed to the Athletics, who owned Shibe Park. He really had no choice but to sell the club to the highest bidder.

"Eventually, the National League purchased 'substantially all' of the club stock from Gerry Nugent and other stockholders.

As I recollect, Ed Pollock in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin said the league had given him 'what amounts to a dignified `bum's rush',' the Phils' owner himself said he was 'entirely satisfied' with the league's action.

"A week or so later, a syndicate put together by lumber broker William D. Cox, purchased the Phillies from the National League for approximately $250,000. On paper, Cox and his group looked like just the sort of well-endowed ownership that the Phillies had long needed, but within a year Cox himself had been booted from the game by Judge Landis."

"Somewhere in there Veeck got pushed out the door. I never knew if he couldn't raise enough money, or what the problem wuz," Bill said as he scratched his nose.

I had to jump in with some personal knowledge, saying: "The way I heard it at the Tribune was Veeck had the inside track until he let it out that he intended to sign several colored ballplayers to help raise the Phillies in the standings. Then Ford Frick jumped in and shut his offer down by ignoring it and calling on Cox, who he knew had an interest in purchasing the ball club."

"That so? Well Frick's another racist prick. Hey, I made a rhyme. I bet when he wuz a kid his schoolmates called him Frick the Prick."

"I wouldn't go that far, Bill. He's done a few good things for Baseball."

"He wuz a hack. A piss poor writer who couldn't carry Ring Lardner's typewriter, or Grantland Rice's either. Hell, I can't think of another writer who he might be compared with, and God knows there's a shitload of drunks among them couldn't spell their own names."

"Okay, Bill, enough of Veeck and the Phillies. Let's get back to the Hartford team."

"All right... let's see... I got to face Albert Spalding, the man who popularized the baseball glove. By the by, he also made himself a rich man two years later when after popularizing the glove, he and his brother began a sporting goods store in Chicago.

"Spalding's Boston club won the league and if I remember rightly, his record wuz 57 and 5.

Boston finished 71 and 8 that year and easily outclassed us. Anyways, I played in 53 games, hit .240 and not much else. Oh, I played half-dozen different positions that year. We wound up finishing third. St. Louis beat us out of second by two games I think. See, we won 47 and lost 21. St. Louis won 45 and lost 19. That year it wuz the number of losses that counted, not the wins.

But they had a guy name of George Bradley won every one of their games. Imagine that? And what's more, he had 16 shutouts!"

"The following season, there wuz a change or two from years past. Mainly, the owners got together in New York City and formed the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs.

This happened after some hanky-panky in which several owners urged the other owners to drop out of the National Association and join a new league, consisting of some eight teams: Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Hartford, Louisville, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and St. Louis.

They also agreed to play a 70 game schedule, with ticket prices set at .50 cents. The pitcher's mound wuz to be 45 feet from home plate, and the pitcher's arm wuz not go above his waist. There were to be written player contracts, and no raiding any other team's players.

"The game of Baseball was evolving, but it would be a few more years before the rules segued into what we know the game to be today. But I'll touch on that as we go along.

"During the '76 season, Albert Spaulding picked up where he'd left off, throwing two straight shutouts. We, the Hartford Dark Blues, come to Boston right after that and beat them 3-2 in 10 innings.

"All sorts of records wuz set that season because it wuz considered the first year of the National League's existence. I guess all of 'em were surpassed in short order, as nothing spectacular happened that year, other than Sitting Bull wiping out General Custer at the Little Big Horn and the Philadelphia Exposition about which we discussed earlier.

"Anyways, the White Stockings won the pennant by 6 games. We finished 2nd; this time we beat out the St. Louis team because the winner was determined by the number of games won. If you recall we lost out to them in '75 when they used losses. Go figure. Eventually they settled on using the winning percentage as the determining factor, and even then there were legitimate challenges as to who really deserved to finish ahead of another.

"I should talk about Spalding some more in that he wuz very influential in baseball history. I'll discuss his baseball career first for clarity purposes. The man could pitch. His record wuz 253 won and only 65 lost. His ERA wuz 2.14 and he played the field when not pitching and batted .313 over his 8 years as an active player. Spalding's .796 career winning percentage is the highest ever achieved by a baseball pitcher."

"In 1877 there wuz some chicanery pulled off by William Hulbert, the owner of the Chicago White Sox. Hulbert didn't care for the loose organization of the National Association or the gambling element that influenced it, so he decided to create a new organization, which he dubbed the National League. To aid him in this venture, Hulbert enlisted the help of Spalding.

See, I bet you thought I wuz gone off on a tangent. Is that the right word, Roy?"

"I wouldn't have used it, but yes, it works just fine."

"What Hulbert knew wuz that Spalding wanted to end his career in Chicago which wuz close to his basic roots, and that he didn't like playing with ballplayers who drank, which wuz true of many of the Boston players. So it wuz easy to convince him to sign with the Chicago team, which by the way, is presently the Chicago Cubs, but back then wuz the White Stockings. All them moves between cities and teams are confusing ain't they?"

I agreed with him, saying, "You almost need a scorecard."

"Hell, you DO need a scorecard," he cackled. "Then Spalding coaxed teammates Deacon White, Ross Barnes and Cal McVey, as well as Philadelphia Athletics players Cap Anson and Bob Addy, to sign with Chicago. This wuz all done in secret during the playing season because players were all free agents in those days and didn't want their current club and especially the fans to know they were leaving to play elsewhere the following year.

News of the signings by the Boston and Philadelphia players leaked to the press before the season ended, and all of them suffered verbal abuse and physical threats from the cranks, as baseball fans were called at the time.

"In the following months, Hulbert and Spalding organized the National League by enlisting the four major teams in the East and the three other top teams in what was then considered to be the West. Joining Chicago initially were the leading teams from Cincinnati, Louisville, and Indianapolis. The owners of these western clubs accompanied Hulbert and Spalding to New York where they secretly met with owners from New York, Philadelphia, Hartford, and Boston. Each signed the league's constitution, and the National League was officially born.

"Although the National Association held on for a few more seasons, it wuz no longer recognized as the premier organization for professional baseball. Gradually, it faded out of existence and was replaced by myriad minor leagues and associations around the country.

"And with all that he had on his plate, Spalding managed to win 47 games as the prime pitcher for the White Stockings, who captured the National League's inaugural pennant by a wide margin.

"Spalding's Sporting Goods Company took off , and he became a very rich man. He retired from the game in 1878, but managed the Chicago team for several years, one of which had me playing for him. Bob Ferguson persuaded him to sign me after my club thought I wuz washed up as the '78 season kicked off.

I made it up to him by hitting for a career high of .296, and wuz the regular catcher. It was a mystery to me how that ball club with all its heavy hitting finished in the second division. Al Spaulding was honest, wouldn't have no time for the hangers-on, or gamblers that followed the teams. But it was Harry Wright's Boston team that won, with Tommy Bond winning 40 of the 60 games played that year.

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