April 27, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 37

Black baseball in Boston: recovering a lost legacy

Bijan C. Bayne

Though it never hosted a major Negro League ball club, and was home to a decidedly minority black population, the history of touring black baseball teams in Greater Boston is as rich as anywhere in America.

From the early 1920’s to the late 1940’s, teams such as the Boston (Colored) Tigers, the “Philadelphia” Giants, the Boston ABC’s, and even the short-lived Boston Blues captivated fans and sportswriters of all hues. In a city where the Boston Braves were one of the most progressive teams regarding integration, and the Boston Red Sox the worst, Hub residents followed a succession of local favorite players outside the major leagues.

Among the more colorful and popular were “baseball’s oldest battery”, pitcher “Cannonball” Will Jackman and catcher-manager Burlin White who toured the U.S. and Canada together for a quarter of a century.

The first prominent black ball club in 20th century Boston was the Boston Colored Tigers. Run by a man named A.A. “Bob” Russell, their heyday spanned from the early 1920’s to the early 1930’s, when the city was caught in the grips of The Great Depression. The Tigers’ existence coincided with the migration of Southern blacks to the Boston area, and their competition included all manner of factory, semi-pro, town and park teams, many of whom were white.

The premier players for this well-organized outfit were speedy outfielders Moses Sisco and Billy Burke, Spike Corbin, and steady first baseman Oscar Moore, the latter who went on to coach baseball at Florida A & M. Most were products of the strong athletic program at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.

Another stalwart was a pitcher named Joel Lewis of Allston, who was best known for an extra inning high school pitcher’s duel with future Red Sox hurler Danny McFayden of Somerville High.

While a BU art student (against the wishes of his parents), painter Romare Bearden pitched for the Tigers, probably under an assumed name. Tiger competition included teams from Somerville, Malden and even an Italian team from South Boston.

Bob Russell was a savvy promoter, who once attended the annual Negro League meeting to lobby their owners for admission to the big time. The general feeling among the Chicagoans and New Yorkers present was that Boston lacked the size of a black fan base to support a league club.

In 1923, Negro League veteran Danny McClellan organized a team that had been playing as the Quaker Giants into a Boston-based contingent called, for marketing purposes, the Philadelphia Giants. Black sports teams often named themselves after cities that would immediately identify them as African American to white fans and media (such as the Harlem Globetrotters, who were founded in Chicago).

McClellan’s Giants were a talented bunch led by lanky Texan sidearm pitcher “Cannonball” Jackman and crafty catcher Burlin White. Over the 1920’s Giants came and went, and the team adopted the names Boston (Colored) Giants and Boston Royal Giants, but Jackman and White were mainstays. Jackman threw a blazing fastball that dropped as it approached the plate — legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw coveted him so that he called Jackman a great pitcher and hitter who would help bring a pennant to any major league team, but for his complexion. Negro League superstar Bill Yancey, later a Yankees scout, said Jackman was the greatest all-around ballplayer he ever saw.

In July of ‘27, Boston Daily Traveler writer Herb Finnegan dubbed Jackman one of the best pitchers in the country, “... Walter Johnson, Flint Meadows and Grover Cleveland Alexander notwithstanding...”

In 1930, the Taunton [MA] Daily Gazette called Jackman “...the world’s greatest colored pitcher,” crediting him with a 1929 record of 48-4 with two no-hitters.

According to James A. Riley’s “Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues,” Jackman was “52-2 one season with the Giants and bested Satchel Paige twice in two outings.” Jackman and White were obviously close, because White never objected to Jackman barnstorming or hiring out for stints with teams as varied as the Newark Eagles, Watertown Arsenal, East Douglas, Mass. (where he teamed with future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg), Santop’s Broncos and the Wilmington Quaker Giants.

It was good business, Jackman had a wide fan following and for his moonlighting he was often paid $175 a game and an additional $10 bonus per strikeout. Negro Leaguers such as Gene Benson and Pud Flournoy also saw action with the Royal Giants, the former before he was a Philadelphia Star, the latter when he was past his peak as a pitcher.

Thus the Royal Giants served as a farm team of sorts for black baseball, albeit a very good one. Herbert “Chink” Holmes was a fine player for the “RG’s” — in 2002 the Red Sox wore throwback jerseys in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays that were modeled after a uniform Holmes’ great-grandson, Tracy McDaniels, found in a Roxbury foot locker. Frannie Matthews, a first baseman from Rindge Tech, was a Royal Giant before moving on to the powerful Newark Eagles of the major Negro Leagues. White took the RG’s as far north as Canada’s Cape Breton League, and games against mill or industrial teams in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire were common.

The Boston Royal Giants sometimes played in Boston’s famed Park League, and as late as 1946, when Jackman and White were approaching 50 years of age, were almost impossible to defeat in weekly Wednesday night games against the Newport (R.I.) Sunset League All-Stars, a team of Triple A signees, college baseball stars, and former Phillies pitcher Sam Nahem. One baffled All-Star hitter, who was then half Jackman’s age, said Jackman was more difficult to hit than big league ace Robin Roberts, against whom he had batted during World War Two.

In July 1971, Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent declared “Will Jackman Day”, and the old-timer was feted by the likes of the Red Sox front office, Mayor Kevin White and the landmark WGBH television series “Say Brother”. The great pitcher died in Marion a year later.

Other teams that should be mentioned are the mid-1930’s Boston ABC’s, a semipro team promoted by a man named Clem Mack, but with a woman president, Clara Muree Jones. She forbade them from playing on Sunday, deeming it sacrilegious. This team played a white ball club in Henderson, North Carolina apparently without incident. The ABC’s won that contest 17-0.

Under Jones’ presidency, the ABC’s played the Homestead Grays (losing twice). Her best players were Leroy Powell (who played with the Washington Black Sox), Speedball Syms and North Carolinian Jimmy Rhem (who also saw time with the Schenectady Mohawk Giants and Edgewater Giants).

The last formidable black ball club in Boston was the Boston Blues, part of Branch Rickey’s U.S. Baseball League. In retrospect, Rickey likely organized this league to serve as a scouting pool to integrate his Brooklyn Dodgers. When the circuit folded in 1946 due to scheduling problems, the Blues led their division. Their stars, catcher Johnny Powell and pitcher Leroy Bennett, played in Negro League All-Star Games with other clubs.

Venues that hosted the Tigers, Royal Giants and ABC’s were often small public parks such as Cambridge’s Playstead Park and Boston’s Lincoln Park, but Braves Field (now Northeastern U’s Nickerson Stadium) rented to African American owners as early as 1938, and Fenway Park was used for heavily-promoted games after 1945. By 1945, pressure on Boston’s major league teams to sign black players mounted, including pickets and boycotts, Fenway tryouts for young Jackie Robinson and Marvin Williams and a threat from City Councilman Isadore Muchnick to revoke the Red Sox’ license to play Sunday baseball unless they integrated their roster.

Sox owner Tom Yawkey did not “relent” until 1959, when the club brought up Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, a mediocre middle infielder. By then, the Braves had moved to Milwaukee, with black talent such as Sam Jethro and Bill Bruton whom they had signed in The Hub. Not surprisingly, when the Red Sox management was entertaining thoughts of signing African Americans, “Cannonball” Jackman was consulted as to who the prime candidates were.

When Red Sox icon Ted Williams gave his Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in 1966, he lamented the fact that great Negro Leaguers were not represented in Cooperstown. This sparked an interest in black baseball, and committees to enshrine and recognize its legends. It is unfortunate for Red Sox Nation that Williams never teamed with some of the luminaries that were right under Mr. Yawkey’s nose, particularly the ageless Will Jackman.

Bijan C. Bayne, who was born in Roxbury, is author of “Sky Kings: Black Pioneers of Professional Basketball”. He lives in Washington, D.C.




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