Diamonds in the Rough

Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, “the Negro Leagues” were the only games in town for black ballplayers.

Buck O’Neil at a scouting visit/camp in Baton Rouge

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Like countless young men from Louisiana who savored the national pastime, Milfred “Rick” Laurent no doubt longed to get a shot at playing baseball in the Major Leagues.

But despite playing professionally for 16 years beginning in 1921, he never reached that goal, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t good enough to play in the majors.

It was because he was black.

He was black in an age when segregation blanketed not only the South but also professional baseball as a whole. For that reason, Laurent was relegated to the shadows of the game in the Negro Leagues, where thousands of men (and even a few women) toiled, hidden from mainstream society and the recognition that wouldn’t come to black baseball players until Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color line in 1947.

In Laurent’s case, he ended up playing for black Louisiana teams such as the New Orleans Crescents and the Caulfield Ads before moving on to the upper echelons of the Negro Leagues.

Although black ballplayers loved their time in the game, being shunned by organized baseball weighed on Laurent and men like him.

“I never had the opportunity [to play in the Majors],” he told the Louisiana Weekly in 1981. “I was born 50 years too soon.”

But while they never got their big shot, black players made up a flourishing, vibrant baseball scene across the country, with such Hall of Fame legends as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Oscar Charleston and “Cyclone” Joe Williams etching their names into history.

Louisiana was no different. Teams dotted the state from north to south, east to west. Beginning in the mid-to-late 19th century and running into the 1950s, squads from big cities such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge to smaller places such as Monroe, Winnfield and Houma plied their trade and traversed countless miles on the nation’s back roads in search of their next games.

The annals of Louisiana black baseball also included a slew of colorful and important players, such as New Orleans native Walter Wright, an influential player and educator who founded the Old Timers Baseball Club a half-century ago to, as he wrote in a 1967 letter to a potential sponsor, “keep alive the interest in the national pastime and pay tribute to the baseball greats of yesteryear …”

Eventual Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Hilton Smith began his pro career with the Monroe Monarchs in the early 1930s, while power-hitting Shreveport native Willard Brown joined Smith in the Hall of Fame in 2006. Catcher Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett went from his hometown of Baton Rouge to stardom in the Negro Leagues, beginning with the New Orleans Crescent Stars in 1934, and gained fame when he occasionally performed his catching duties in a rocking chair.

“We had a lot of good ballplayers,” says surviving Negro Leagues member Herb Simpson, who began his career with the semi-pro Winfield [sic] Devils and Algiers Giants in the 1930s. “They never got the chance to play [in the Majors].”

Behind the scenes, men such as Allen Page made things happen on black ball fields. As perhaps New Orleans’ most prominent team owner and sports promoter, Page did as much for pre-integration black baseball as anyone from the state. Among Page’s most notable achievements were the signing of trailblazing female player Toni Stone to his New Orleans Creoles squad and the creation of the annual North-South All-Star game.

But once again, Page’s accomplishments have largely remained unheralded.

“I know my father has been overlooked,” says his son, Rodney Page. “But he was a good man. He had a lot of struggles and challenges in life, but he was a man who took care of a lot of people. He cared for a lot of people.”

In the northeast corner of the state, black baseball found an unlikely backer in white oil baron Fred Stovall, who founded and nurtured the Monroe Monarchs, who thrived in the 1930s. The Monarchs’ biggest year came in 1932, when they were the linchpin of the Negro Southern League, which for a season was the country’s only top-level black league and a bridge to the Negro Leagues’ glory years.

However, the Monarchs are like many other teams in Louisiana and across Dixie that now exist in relative obscurity, at least compared to more well-known Northern and Midwestern teams such as the Homestead Grays, Chicago American Giants and Newark Eagles.

“One of the primary reasons [Louisiana is overlooked] is simply that there was never a major Negro League team there, and as a result people have focused their attention on where they think information will be easier to find,” says Negro Leagues researcher Leslie Heaphy, who is an associate professor at Kent State University in Ohio. “I think this is held up when you think about the teams we do know about from the area [like the Monarchs] – it is because there was a big-league-caliber team playing in the area or a prominent player.”


PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NOPL

But some of those unheralded teams and players are starting to be recognized for their efforts; thanks to dedicated researchers and scholars, more is becoming known about the Negro Leagues in Louisiana. Here are some of the squads that contributed to the state’s rich black baseball heritage:

New Orleans Pinchbacks
Thriving in the 1880s and named after P.B.S. Pinchback, the state’s and the nation’s first black governor, the Pinchbacks were themselves the first successful black baseball team in Louisiana.
Competing against other Big Easy professional black teams such as the Cohens, the Dumonts and the Unions, the Pinchbacks played local white teams as well before the color line was informally drawn on the diamond. The squad also traversed the country, taking on teams in such cities as St. Louis and Chicago.

In August 1888, when the Pinchbacks ventured to Chicago, the Daily Picayune wrote that the team and its Windy City opponent “enjoy an unrivaled reputation in the world of colored sport, and the Pinchbacks are so highly esteemed in Louisiana that five car loads of gentlemen of their race came with them [to Chicago] from the South.”

Monroe Monarchs
For one brief, shining moment in 1932, the Monarchs were the center of the black baseball universe. Founded in the late 1920s, the team played in the spiffy confines of Casino Park, which owner Fred Stovall built on his plantation. Stovall housed and fed the players, and he built a swimming pool and a dance hall for the team and the local black population.

The Monarchs continued to grow in popularity, performance and influence, a process that peaked in 1932, when the Monarchs formed the foundation of the Negro Southern League, which, after the demise of the initial Negro National League, became the country’s premier black circuit. The creation of a second Negro National League in 1933 relegated the Southern loop back to minor league status, and the Monarchs played a few more years before folding. But in ’32, they were black baseball royalty.

“They are incredibly important to the history of the Negro Leagues, not just for the players they produced but for the team itself,” says Thomas Aiello, whose book, The Kings of Casino Park, chronicles the Monarchs’ story. “Their influence is tremendous. They were the linchpin for the continuation of what the Negro Leagues ended up becoming.”

New Orleans Black Pelicans
The Black Pels were one of Louisiana’s longest-running black teams, with an on-and-off history stretching on for several decades beginning around 1920. The team went through a number of ownerships and incarnations, but the squad became a rough equivalent of the Crescent City’s long-running white minor league team, the Pelicans, and boasted a colorful history. Of note, for example, is that the Black Pels were one of legendary pitcher Satchel Paige’s first teams when he started his career circa 1926.

Shreveport Acme Giants
During the summers of 1935 and ’36, the Acme Giants were one of the state’s pre-eminent barnstorming teams, traveling north through the Midwest up into central Canada, where they took on all comers, including numerous white squads, with significant success.

The Acmes’ visits to prairie towns were much anticipated by the local communities. In June 1935, for example, the Winnipeg Free Press heralded the coming of the Acme Giants, who “rate highly in the South and will open in Winnipeg with a record of 22 wins out of 26 games,” while a few months later the Oelwein, Iowa, Daily Register noted that “these colored boys make a business of ball playing.”

The Acme Giants boasted a slew of prime players, such as Louisiana’s John Bissant and Buck O’Neil, who in his later years became the leading advocate and ambassador for the Negro Leagues. In addition, one news report from July 1935 stated that eight members of the team were college graduates and one was a rugby coach.


photograph Courtesy of the Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University

Secret 9
Several famous black athletes and entertainers owned their own baseball teams, including New Orleans’ legendary Louis Armstrong, who backed a semi-pro team called the Secret 9 in the early 1930s.

According to author Laurence Bergreen, the Secret 9 was composed mostly of members of the famed Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club and, in 1931, received splendid new uniforms thanks to Satchmo’s largesse. “The team is outfitted with just about everything a good ball club needs,” stated the Louisiana Weekly in August 1931, “from their baseball caps down to the mascot’s water bucket.”

However, the squad frequently underperformed because the players didn’t want to slide in the dirt and ruin their new duds, and the Secret 9’s underwhelming performance against the Black Pels was met with derision in the same Weekly article: “Yeah, Louis’s boys were all spruced up in their ‘Sunday Go To Meetings,’ but when it came to bucking up against a guy with a luck-piece, they couldn’t meet the issue. Wonder if they were too well dressed?”

New Orleans Crescent Stars
Although founded more than a decade earlier, the Crescent Stars reached their pinnacle in 1933, when they streaked to the Negro Southern League title and faced the Chicago American Giants in what was billed as the Negro World Series. (The American Giants, oddly enough, were managed by Dave Malarcher, a Whitehall, La., native and graduate of what is now Dillard University.)

The Stars erected 4,000 additional seats at Crescent Park to host the first game against the Chicago outfit. Although the American Giants dominated their New Orleans opponents, the inaugural game in the series drew what the Louisiana Weekly called the largest crowd to ever attend a black sporting event in the city.

“The crowd alone furnished a thrill,” the paper stated on Sept. 30, 1933. “Thousands of persons representing every walk of life filed into the stands proper, into the temporary bleachers, out into the field and into every nook and corner which provided points of vantage. … There were men, women, kids and even pets on the house tops, men and kids in the tree tops, on fences, sheds and posts.”

New Orleans Stars
In 1940, the Big Easy got its first and only major-level Negro Leagues team when the financially beleaguered St. Louis Stars, a Negro American League squad, moved their base of operations to New Orleans in a deal brokered by local sports impresario Allen Page.

“This column wishes Allen Page the best of luck in his new venture,” wrote Louisiana Weekly columnist Eddie Burbridge in June 1940. “He has long tried to provide the city with major baseball, and it looks like his efforts have been crowned at last.”

However, despite Page’s best promotional efforts, the Stars lasted for only two seasons in New Orleans before dissolving.

In addition to the franchises discussed above, dozens, if not hundreds, of other teams existed in Louisiana at various times. Some were sponsored by local businesses, including the Jax Red Sox and the Dr. Nut Algiers Giants.

Other teams floating around the New Orleans area carried the monikers of their respective neighborhoods, such as the Metairie Pelicans, Melpomene White Sox, Gretna Lookouts, Plaquemine Tigers, Shrewsbury Globetrotters and Meraux Tigers. Such outfits played at various competitive levels, from amateur to semi-pro.

Baton Rouge teams
While black baseball thrived in New Orleans, Shreveport, Monroe and other locales in the state, in the state capital the hardball scene wasn’t as lively. Teams such as the West Baton Rouge Cubs, Scotlandville White Sox, Baton Rouge Stars and Baton Rouge Black Sox played and toured at various time in the 1930s and ’40s, but not much information exists about such squads.

Across the state, such organizations as the Houma Delta Cubs, Ferriday Stars and Shreveport Black Sports came and went over the years, as well. A scan of the Louisiana Weekly from the early 1930s shows the Lincoln Giants playing in Lake Charles, the Hard Hitters and Cubs hailing from Hammond, the Bears and Black Sox representing Morgan City and the Black Aces and Lincoln Giants (as opposed to the team in Lake Charles) based in Alexandria.

A slew of individual players also either played or came from locales across the state. Several – such as Oliver Marcelle of Thibodaux, Gene Smith of Ansley and Johnny Wright of New Orleans – boasted Louisiana towns and cities as their hometowns and went on to stellar careers at the top echelons of black baseball.

Such players thrived in the baseball shadows before the arrival of Jackie Robinson. And, ironically enough, it was the sport’s integration, led by Robinson, that proved to be the death knell of black hardball teams – as more and more players left the Negro Leagues for new opportunities in the Majors, black baseball gradually lost steam before dying out completely by the start of the 1960s. Says Rodney Page, “It was the end of an era.”
But what an era it was! And although the history of the Negro Leagues scene in Louisiana has until this point been ignored, information is gradually coming to light.

But still, these stories have largely been overlooked by history. Many of the players and managers who filled Negro Leagues rosters longed to play in the white Major Leagues, but initially only a select few had that opportunity after Robinson broke the color barrier. That caused those left behind to simply reflect on what might have been.

“If they had given us the opportunity at a young age, I would have been in the National League or American League,” former player Brooks English told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in June 1983. “We had good boys in New Orleans, and many of them would have been up there [in the Majors]. We had it from the heart.”
 

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