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
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
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.