The Story of Oliver Marcell

The Thibodaux native was one of the greatest third basemen in baseball history, but you’ve probably never heard of him.

Oliver Marcell

COURTESY OF National Baseball Hall of Fame

In 1996, when George Marcell of New Orleans ventured to Natchitoches, La., to witness the induction of his long-deceased relative, Oliver Marcell, into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, it was difficult for George to stay composed.

“I had to give the acceptance speech,” George Marcell says. “I kind of choked up at the end.”

It certainly wasn’t the first time Thibodaux native Oliver Hazzard Marcell had elicited strong emotions from people. During his days as the premier third baseman in baseball’s Negro Leagues – the all-black hardball organizations that existed before Jackie Robinson broke the major-league color barrier in the 1940s – Oliver was known both as a brilliantly instinctual player as well as an irascible, sometimes violent alcoholic.

When the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading African-American newspapers, released a famous poll naming the greatest pre-integration players of all time in 1952, Marcell got the lead nod at third base, even over eventual National Baseball Hall of Famers Judy Johnson and Ray Dandridge. The paper giddily gushed about the player coined “The Ghost.”

Oliver, the Courier stated, “could do EVERYTHING. A fielding gem, who could go to his right or his left with equal facility, could come up with breath-taking plays on bunts ... who was equally good at laying one down or going for the long ball, he was a ballplayer’s delight and the idol of fandom.”

But in the late 1920s, while he was playing in a winter Cuban league, Oliver got into a fight with teammate – a teammate! – Frank Warfield (probably over a dice game) that was so heated that Warfield bit off a large chunk of the Louisianian’s nose. The mishap precipitated the hastened, swift end to Oliver's career – a career that, if played out longer and with less fury and temper, might have landed him in Cooperstown along with other legendary third sackers like Johnson and Dandridge.

“He played hard all the time – gave 110 percent,” says Kent State University professor and Negro Leagues scholar Leslie Heaphy. “He seemed to have an uncanny knack for seeing the ball well. He never wanted to lose.

“This applies to his temper as well. He never seemed to take anything without responding. Sometimes it seems he acted in order to get under his opponents’ skin. Unfortunately he treated teammates and opponents to displays of his anger and this did not help his overall career.”

Instead, by the early 1930s, Oliver was out of baseball, living an itinerant life that ended in 1949 when he died a pauper in Denver, a broken man buried in an unmarked grave after suffering from fatal arteriosclerosis.

*****

In one respect, Oliver's death could be seen as a case of “you reap what you sow,” the result of a lifetime of illicit behavior, volatile outbursts and often uncontrolled anger toward others. But more so, his passing in poverty-stricken obscurity can be seen as a tragedy, pure and simple, a sad, pitiful end to a man who failed to achieve his full potential because of his own crippling vices and temperament.

That, perhaps, is a huge part of the reason Thibodaux barely recognizes the fact that it was the birthplace of one of the greatest third basemen in baseball history. The small southeastern Louisiana city doesn’t have a park named after him, and I had trouble finding a town official who could even comment about Oliver's nativity in their town.

In addition, Brent St. Germain, the current sports editor at the local Courier and Daily Comet, says he doesn’t have any information about Oliver and knows no one in Thibodaux who would.

In fact, most Negro League fans, both then and now, believe New Orleans to be Oliver’s hometown even though, while he started his professional baseball career in the Crescent City, Oliver did indeed hail from Thibodaux. That, combined with his volatile behavior and moods, is perhaps why his true birthplace doesn’t acknowledge him at all.

“I think because he played for a New Orleans team, he is generally thought of as being from here,” says New Orleans Advocate sports columnist Ted Lewis, a longtime Louisiana journalist who has done much to publicize the state’s Negro Leagues legacy. “Maybe for that reason there's no Oliver Marcell playground in Thibodaux. But there's not one in New Orleans, either. Remember, he wasn't the most likable guy.”

Even Oliver himself perpetuated the myth that he sprang from New Orleans instead of Thibodaux. On his World War I draft registration card, he stated that he was born on June 21, 1895, in New Orleans, while on a 1920 application for a U.S. passport – which he sought so he could play baseball in Cuba – he claimed that he was born June 1, 1895, in New Orleans.

But in 1974, Oliver’s son, Everett “Ziggy” Marcell, confirmed his father’s birth place when the former filled out a player profile questionnaire for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, when he listed Oliver’s hometown as “Tibbedeaux, Lousiana” [sic]. (The exact date of Oliver’s birth also remains, like many other aspects of his life, a murky puzzle. While Oliver placed it as 1895 on multiple official documents, Ziggy Marcell listed it for the Hall of Fame as some time in 1897.)

That same passport application reveals yet another enigmatic side to the Oliver Marcell story – the spelling of his last name. While he signed the document “Marcell,” the person filling out the application spelled it “Marcelle.” (On his draft card, his name is both written and signed “Marcell.”)

That’s the spelling – Marcelle – used by Wikipedia, baseball-reference.com and Negro Leagues historian James A. Riley in the his comprehensive book, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. In most city directories in which he appears, Oliver’s name is listed as Marcell, but on occasion it’s stated as Marcelle or even Marcel. Some of Oliver’s ancestors might have even spelled it Marselle.

Oliver’s mother, the former Eliza (or, alternately, Liza), hailed from Mansfield in DeSoto Parish, where she is listed on the 1870 U.S. Census as the 3-year-old daughter of farm laborer (and, apparently, single father) Sam Pike.

Meanwhile, “The Ghost’s” father, Daniel Marcell, was born – as stated by Oliver in the latter’s 1920 passport form – in Thibodaux, probably around 1865. Daniel’s background is less clear, but he and Eliza were married on Dec. 11, 1886, in Lafourche Parish.

What does become clearer is the type of life Daniel led — that of an itinerant father who skirted the boundaries of the law. By 1900, when that year’s Census was taken, the Marcell family had moved to New Orleans, with Eliza and, supposedly, Daniel shepherding six children, of which Oliver was the fifth one born. Daniel’s occupation is listed as “laborer.”

However, that’s not the only time Daniel appears in the 1900 Census. He’s also listed in Thibodaux as a 30-year-old  “inmate” and day laborer at a house in LaFourche Parish.

From there, Daniel’s life gets even shadier, with different documents presenting conflicting accounts of his fate – where he lived, when he died and whether he left Eliza a widow or simply walked away from his family and disappeared.

Oliver Marcell apparently told his family very little about his background, including his parents. On the 1974 Hall of Fame information form, Ziggy only wrote question marks in the spaces allotted for Oliver’s parents’ names.

In any event, Eliza became a single mother in New Orleans, working as a laundress in a private family. By his late teens, Oliver himself was toiling away in New Orleans, sometimes as a carpenter, other times as a mason.

*****

By 1920, Oliver had launched his baseball career in full; as of 1920, he was listed in New Orleans city directories as a ball player. (Some sources state he attended New Orleans University – one of the forerunners of Dillard University in New Orleans — for high school.) He took to the field – and probably a sandlot or two — for the New Orleans Eagles and other local African-American semi-pro squads.

It was during his tenure in New Orleans that Oliver met his eventual wife, Hazel Taylor, a New Orleans native born in 1896 and raised by her widowed mother, Bertha Taylor, a laundress, and her grandfather, Cyrus Spotts, a day laborer.

Hazel and Oliver tied the knot on June 8, 1914 (another fact Ziggy couldn’t fill out for the Hall of Fame). In January 1915, their first child, Oliver Jr., was born in New Orleans. A second son, Everett, followed a year later. (Everett would go on to have a successful but turbulent professional athletic career in his own right in multiple sports. Oliver Jr., meanwhile, spent the rest of his life in New Orleans as well, toiling as a cook, a porter and, at one point, a janitor at City Hall.)

It’s apparently at that point that Hazel and Oliver Sr. parted ways as Oliver’s baseball career took off. By the time the 1930 U.S. Census was taken, Oliver was living in New York City without Hazel, whom he left behind in New Orleans to raise Oliver Jr. and Everett (with the help of elder family members) and eke out a living as a nurse, a cook and a house maid with a private family.

In the 1952 New Orleans city directory, Hazel is listed as the widow of Oliver, who did indeed die in Denver in 1949. Hazel herself passed away on Jan. 30, 1958, at her home, long ago estranged from her husband.

Meanwhile, by 1918 Oliver had hitched on with the Brooklyn Royal Giants, followed by the Detroit Stars and, most famously, the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, N.J., and the New York Lincoln Giants, with whom he was named captain in 1924 despite his relative youth. He also played in Cuba for several seasons.

Oliver developed into a heady base runner, a steady hitter with a slashing style and power-hitting capability, and, most importantly, one of the best fielding third basemen in baseball history. In Robert Peterson’s seminal 1970 tome on the Negro Leagues, Only the Ball Was White, the author notes that Oliver possessed “all the skills needed by a third baseman” and “was soon recognized as the most accomplished third baseman in black baseball.”

Likewise, in a 1966 article in Norfolk, Va.’s New Journal and Guide, columnist Jacko Maxwell, in listing his all-time Negro Leagues team, placed Oliver second behind Judy Johnson, the Hall of Famer.

“Marcell, a peanut sized player,” Maxwell wrote, “was death on bunts and, despite his short stature, handled line drives hit over his head with ease. His ability to steal home while the pitcher held the ball is a trick that modern day major league base runners have yet to master.”

But while his hardball abilities were rapidly blossoming, so was his fiery, aggressive disposition that frequently landed him in trouble on the field. Peterson wrote: “His violent temper often had him in hot water with umpires.” In one game, Oliver became so irate over an encounter with opponent – and future Hall of Famer and fellow ill-tempered player – Oscar Charleston that Oliver whacked him over the head with a bat.

Perhaps the most disturbing incident in Oliver’s career came in May 1925, when he and teammates Dave Brown and Frank Wickware were involved in a barroom fight in which Brown apparently shot and killed a man. Oliver and Wickware were detained and questioned but released after being cleared in the murder. Brown, meanwhile, slipped away and lived as a fugitive for the majority of his life.

The incident earned vehement scorn from the African-American press, which fretted about how the ugly incident would impact black baseball and its public image. A Pittsburgh Courier columnist fretted that the incident “will just about wreck the Lincoln Giants. The ill-considered actions of this trio will have a deleterious effect on baseball generally and will remove from that sport the greatest third baseman and the greatest left-hander in the Eastern League.”

Then there was the disfiguring and practically career-ending scrum with teammate Warfield in Cuba in 1930. Once Oliver lost the majority of his nose to Warfield’s teeth, his career entered into a rapid downslide; the vain Oliver couldn’t bear the razzing from fans and other players – he was forced to wear a patch over the injury – and the lack of a proboscis severely hampered his playing ability.

*****

Oliver Marcell ultimately retired in 1934, after knocking around in independent baseball for a few years, and settled in Denver, where he became a house painter and a caretaker before sliding into obscurity and dying, alone, poor and forgotten, in 1949.

His death was ignored by – and, in all reality, unknown to – the press, and he was interred in an unmarked grave in 1949. Fortunately, a group of community activists worked to install a simple grave marker on his final resting place in 1991.

That leaves baseball historians and Oliver's descendants to evaluate his legacy and chronicle his life. George Marcell, Oliver's descendant who gave the speech at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction, says he and his family are extremely proud of Oliver and what he accomplished despite his illicit behavior and troublesome disposition. “We always heard about him growing up,” George says. “Our family would always talk about him.” Unfortunately, George never had the chance to meet his legendary family member in person.

In the end, Oliver Marcell remains one of black baseball’s – and, indeed, all of baseball’s – most intriguing, mysterious, complicated and tragic figures, one who could have reached dizzying hardball heights and earned eternal recognition via induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Instead, his temper and trouble with the law prematurely ended a brilliant career and caused Marcell to often be overlooked by fans and the general public, especially in his hometown of Thibodaux.

“The famous fight and biting off part of his nose certainly helped end his career early,” says scholar Heaphy, “but he did not get a lot of publicity and his career was not as often covered I think due to his temper. This would help explain why he faded away so quickly, I think.”

What’s left are, in many ways, the emotions, both the volatile and ultimately self-destructive ones possessed by The Ghost himself, and those his career and personality continue to elicit from family, fans, researchers and simple baseball enthusiasts – amazement, frustration, pity, sadness, pride. That, then, is perhaps Oliver Marcell’s final legacy – emotion, powerful, passionate and, always and eternally, fascination.

 

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