the 20th Century
The following article by
Knorr and Jackson was written for the 1998
Commemorative Program: 2nd Annual Negro
League Commemorative Night. Harrisburg, PA,
1998 produced for the SABR Negro League Committee
Research Conference, August 7-9, 1998 in
Harrisburg.. Afrolumens is proud to present
this groundbreaking history of the Negro Leagues
by Ted Knorr and Calobe Jackson, Jr.
National Pastime traces its roots to the first half of
the 19th century. While it may not have been invented
by a civil war general, it certainly was popularized
and proliferated by the Civil War. In post-war
America, Baseball was the National Pastime. In
Harrisburg it was no different and in Black Harrisburg
it was the same. Baseball was the sport of all races,
classes and cultures in the young country.
The earliest ball game on record (and
existing box score) involving a Black Harrisburg club
is a contest between the Pythian Club of Philadelphia
and Harrisburg's Monrovia Base Ball Club. On October
5, 1867, George Galbraith of the Monrovians club wrote
a letter to the Secretary of the Pythian Club alerting
them of the Harrisburgers "desire to engage with you
in a match game of ball on the first day named,
Friday, October 22nd." It appears the game actually
took place on October 20th and was won by the Pythians
59 to 27. The well-known Octavius Catto played for the
Pythians. Jacob White was the Pythians manager and T.
Morris Chester likely named the Monrovian Club having
spent 7 years in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. A
Chester played third base for the Monrovians. All
three men, Catto, White and Chester are honored with
historic markers in Pennsylvania describing their
storied careers off the diamond. Just two month's
after the game, the Pythians were denied membership in
the National Association of Base Ball Players. The
NABBP passed a resolution stating that they
"unanimously report against the admission of any club
which may be composed of one or more colored persons."
The color line had been officially drawn. There was
nothing written about this line.
The First Game
about the 1867 game between the Harrisburg
Monrovians and the Philadelphia Pythians
As baseball moved from an amateur
pastime to an opportunity to make one's livelihood,
African-Americans joined the play for pay bunch as did
other Americans. The first Black professional player
was Bud Fowler who toiled for two teams in the
International League in 1878. A Harrisburger, Jack
Frye, was among the second pair of Black pros when he
(for Reading) and Moses Fleetwood Walker (for Toledo)
cashed paychecks in 1883.
The first professional Black team was the Cuban
Giants in 1885. Their roster included two
Harrisburgers - Frye and catcher Clarence Williams.
in those days was not entirely segregated, more than six
dozen African-Americans appeared in games in so called
organized baseball before the turn of the century. A
very successful integrated team of that era was the
Harrisburg Ponies of 1890. This precursor of the
Senators fielded a team that included both Williams (who
became the first African-American to play baseball on
City Island) and Frank Grant the non-parallel second
baseman who just may have been the best ballplayer
period of the 19th century.
Another big event in 1890 occurred in April, when the
newspaper reported that a certain Strothers was
organizing a baseball team. That team evolved into the
Harrisburg Giants. Strothers - Colonel William Strothers
- was born in Culpepper, Virginia in 1868. He ran away
from home in 1880 to work on the railroad. Returning
East he settled in Harrisburg in 1888. He was quite the
entrepreneur and renaissance man being a laborer,
policeman, a dance instructor, a politician, a pool hall
operator and businessperson. No matter what career
path Strothers was taking at any point in time, a
constant was baseball. He ran the Giants from their
beginnings in the 1890s until his death in 1933.
Clarence Williams was one of the best catchers in
Blackball in the 19th and early 20th century. He
played on several great teams including the Cuban
Giants, Harrisburg Ponies, Big Gorhams, and the Cuban
X Giants. Williams was called the "king of coachers"
in 1889 by a reporter for the New York Age
and also cited as such in a Harrisburg newspaper of
1890. The moniker applied not only to Williams
strategies but also to his highly entertaining
mannerisms in motivating his players. Williams caught
many notable games. He was behind the plate in 1887
when Billy Whyte, of the Cuban Giants pitched a great
game against the famous Detroit team. In 1903, he
caught the first perfect game in the annals of
blackball when he was behind the plate in the X-Giants
Danny McClellan's 27 batter effort versus York. Later
that year he caught Rube Foster as the big righthander
pitched the X-Giants to the so-called "Colored
Championship of Baseball." The deciding game of the
rather unofficial world series was played at Island
Park in Harrisburg.
In 1906 the great Spottswood Poles made his
professional debut for the Harrisburg Colored Giants
as he played outfield under Colonel Strothers
management. Earlier Poles, lived and played youth
league ball in Harrisburg's Springdale neighborhood,
which was bounded by Walnut, State, 13th and 18th
| The Giants
had another fine team in 1909 featuring former
Philadelphia Giant outfielder John Manning and Arthur
"Buddy" Carpenter whose great-grandson Aaron Johnson is
the current President of Harrisburg's Little League.
In 1916, fourteen year old Herbert "Rap" Dixon burst
upon the scene breaking in with the semi-pro Keystone
Giants in Steelton. Rap was born in Kingston, GA and
came north in the great migration when his father sought
work in the steel industry. Dixon's playing ability and
bat were soon noticed by Strothers who was building his
Giants into an independent powerhouse.
In 1922, they featured a third baseman named Chic Meade.
What made Meade remarkable was he, apparently, was a
white man passing for black. After his baseball career
was over and during a stint in jail his true racial
identity was discovered. Meade was the business manager
for the Giants in 1925.
Another event that happened in 1922 was the November
wedding of Harrisburg's Jennie Blalock and the best
outfielder in baseball Oscar Charleston of
Prior to the 1924 season, Strothers' franchise joined
the Mutual Association of Colored Baseball Clubs AKA
the Eastern Colored League. Also, Oscar Charleston
came to his wife's hometown to play for the locals
that year. He shared managerial duties that year with
catcher Henry Jordan.
The Giants compiled the second best record in the
Eastern Colored League during its 5 year span. The
Giants success was due to the highest paid lineup in
Blackball which scored runs at a pace higher than that
of the '27 Yankees which set the 20th century major
league standard up to that time. Hitters like
Beckwith, Cannady and Taylor complemented the outfield
of Dixon, Charleston and Fats Jenkins. The outfield is
one of only nine in baseball history that was intact
for 4 years and included a Hall of Famer. It is truly
one of the best outfields in all of baseball history.
The Giants peaked in '25 when they finished second to
the Hilldale Club. The head to head matches that year
between the Lawmakers, as the Giants were sometimes
called, and the Darby Daisies (Hilldale) were the
stuff of legend. Both teams featured Hall of Famers,
should be Hall of Famers and near greats. The Giants
had not only Charleston, Jenkins and Dixon but Ben
Taylor and Rev Cannady who hit .397. Hilldale had Judy
Johnson, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop, George Carr and a
great pitching staff led by Nip Winters. Pitching was
the difference but not the only difference as
Harrisburg Manager Oscar Charleston pointed out in a
rather pointed letter to the Black press. The E.C.L.
was not entirely on the up & up. The influence of
Hilldale owner Bolden was greater on scheduling league
games and assigning umpires than it should have been.
However, the best team won. The truth of the
skullduggery that year was likely somewhere between
Charleston's contentions and Hilldale Business Manager
Lloyd Thompson's equally passionate disclaimers.
Hilldale copped the pennant and defeated the defending
champion Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League
World Series. Make no mistake, though; the Harrisburg
Giants of 1925 were a fine, fine ballclub.
The Giants peak was '25 but they picked up in '26
where they left off the previous year. They jumped out
in front and led the E.C.L. for much of the year. It
was Atlantic City which provided the challenge this
year and in the end, the Bacharrach Giants won the
first of their two consecutive pennants. If possible,
the '26 Giants were even more powerful offensively
than in '25. The lineup lost the veteran Taylor, and
his relatively low power numbers, and added the Black
Bomber himself John Beckwith. If Leonard & Gibson
were the Black Gehrig and Ruth a decade later; I'm not
sure to whom you would compare the duo of Beckwith and
In 1927, the year Ruth hit sixty homers, John Beckwith
is said to have hit 72 (less than a dozen in ECL
competition) homers; while Oscar Charleston led the
league in homeruns with 11. This year proved to be the
swan song for the Harrisburg Giants. After 4 years on
eastern blackball's center stage - and a composite
winning percentage of .576 - the Harrisburg Giants
left the ECL. The ECL itself dissolved shortly
The batboy of the Harrisburg Giants in 1926 and '27
was the young Marshall Waters. Mr. Waters went on to a
long, lengthy career in civic and political affairs in
Harrisburg. Never did he allow his passion for
baseball to lessen and even today will enter into a
debate on the game with just a little encouragement.
Just prior to the '27 season, Biz Mackey of the
Hilldale Club took a team of all-stars to Japan. This
historical cultural exchange took place a good seven
years prior to the more often noted Babe Ruth tour of
'34. In collecting the best talent that he could find
to take to the far east, Mackey selected the
Harrisburg Giants right fielder Rap Dixon. In turn,
ol' Rap just about stole the show. Rap would entertain
the fans prior to the games. He would circle the bases
in just over 14 seconds and toss balls over the
outfield wall while standing on home plate. When the
games began he was even more dramatic. He belted a
home run of such prodigious proportions that Emperor
Hirohito presented him with a trophy to commemorate
Rap did not restrict his accomplishments to foreign
turf. In 1929 he rapped 14 consecutive hits in a
series versus the Homestead Grays and in 1930 in the
first Negro League games ever played in Yankee
Stadium, Rap slammed three home runs. In 1933 when the
first East-West All Star Game was played, Rap started
the game in right. To underscore the greatness of the
Harrisburg Giants outfield of '24-'27, it should be
noted that Fats Jenkins played left field and Oscar
Charleston first base in that first all-star game. The
game was played 6 years after the trio's last
appearance together in the Giant outfield.
Another indicator of the Giants greatness (and staying
power) was the makeup of the Pittsburgh Crawfords
roster in 1932. The Crawfords of that era are
generally thought to be one of, if not the best,
lineup in Negro League history. They featured five
Hall of Famers (Paige, Gibson, Bell, Johnson and
Charleston) but they also included five former
Harrisburg Giants. In addition to the trio in the
outfield, Rev Cannady and Willie Gisentaner appeared
with the fords that season. In fact, despite
having five Hall of Famers, Rev Cannady was referred
to as the "Best All-Around Player in Baseball" on
Crawford stationary that Spring.
Alas, 1932 was the last year for the original,
Strothers-owned, Giants. Their last roster featured
some pretty good players and well known names. The
most prominent among them being Bill Lindsey. In 1933,
at the age of 65, Colonel William Strothers died.
Interestingly, his passing came only days before the
New York Black Yankees were scheduled to play in
Harrisburg. Former Giants Fats Jenkins and Rev Cannady
were on that Yankee team and paid their respects to
their beloved Colonel in uniform prior to taking the
In 1934, Rap Dixon contributed to baseball in a way
other than his own athletic talents when his keen
evaluative eye found a young, schoolboy named Leon Day
playing second base in the Baltimore sandlots. Day
joined Dixon's Baltimore Black Sox team and went on to
a career that ended with enshrinement in baseball's
Hall of Fame. Also on that '34 Black Sox team was
Rap's younger brother Paul Dixon who toiled in the
outfields for several Negro League clubs in the 30s.
In the early forties the fires of Blackball were kept
burning by a team called the Strother's A.C.
which featured Rap Dixon and his brother Paul in the
In 1943, the Harrisburg-St. Louis Stars were scheduled
to compete in the Negro National League. However, they
withdrew shortly after the season began to tour the
country to raise money for the war effort. The Stars
toured with a team managed by Honus Wagner that
featured Dizzy Dean as a three inning pitcher.
Negro League baseball appears to be the highest
quality of baseball played in Island Park during the
war years of 1943-1945 and beyond. These games were
promoted by Rap Dixon and Bud Marshall, a local
pharmacist. Many Negro National League games and
exhibition games between Negro League teams and local
military teams took place at Island Park. The military
teams were often composed of major and minor league
players. Games were often fund raisers to help the war
cause. Examples of such teams were Olmstead Air Force
base, New Cumberland Army Base, and Indian Town Gap.
Many Negro serviceman were stationed at the Gap for
Quartermasters training. These servicemen often came
to town and observed Negro baseball games. The Army
was still segregated at the time. Since many of these
soldiers were from the south, it was their first
opportunity to see teams in integrated contests.
On July 20,1944 in Detroit, Michigan, Rap Dixon died.
He was buried in
Midland Cemetery, Steelton, PA on July 24,
In the late 40s, Spottswood Poles managed a high level
amateur team which was often called the Harrisburg
Giants in honor of its lineage. After Poles stepped
down as manager, Rich Felton took over the reigns. It
is in this latter day period of Negro League baseball
when such local talents as Wilbur Fordham and Tom
Healey (both of whom played for the Harrisburg
Senators), Leo "Psyche" Burnett, Russell Royster,
Robert Pierce and Reid Poles played.
In 1952, as the Negro Leagues decline was in rapid
motion, the Pittsburgh Courier polled its readers to
name the greatest players of the Negro Leagues. They
eventually named 5 teams plus honorable mention. Among
those honored were the following eight Harrisburg
Giants: Oscar Charleston, 1st team outfield; Ben
Taylor, 2nd team first base; John Beckwith, 2nd team
utility; Rap Dixon, 3rd team outfield; Fats Jenkins,
3rd team outfield; Spottswood Poles, 4th team
outfield; Rev Cannady, 4th team utility; and Bunny
Downs, 5th team second base.
Also in 1952, former Harrisburg Giant keystoner
McKinley "Bunny" Downs signed a cross-handed hitting
shortstop to a $200 per month contract to play for the
Indianapolis Clowns. This young player went on to a
major league career with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves.
His name? Hammerin' Hank Aaron!
Spottswood Poles passed on in September 12, 1962. Both
he and his wife, Bertha, are buried in Arlington
In 1963, Fats Jenkins, Captain, and the rest of the
New York Renaissance Five were named to the National
Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA.
In 1975, Oscar McKinley Charleston was installed at
Cooperstown in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1997, Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed appointed a
panel of local historians and fans to honor
Harrisburg's Negro League history. On June 17, 1997,
Harrisburg Giants uniforms took to the field again
when the Harrisburg Senators played their Eastern
League clash with the Portland Sea Dogs sporting
replica uniforms. Honored that evening was the 83 year
old former Giant batboy Marshall Waters. Mr. Waters
tossed a near perfect pitch to open the game that
evening. Tonight is the second annual Negro League
Commemorative Night and we honor Spottswood Poles, the
venerable outfielder, gentleman, war hero and
Harrisburg Colored Giant of 1906 and '07.
| Reed's appointed panel
of mortals will continue over the years to honor the
greats of Harrisburg's Negro League past. In the future
we will see pioneers like Frye and Williams,
administrators like Strothers and Marshall,
personalities like Blalock, greats like Charleston,
Jenkins, Beckwith and Taylor, native sons like Dixon and
the latter day players like Healey, Fordham, and Royster
be so remembered. All we can do is rekindle the storied
past as best we can that these gentlemen (and women)
created against all odds in a very different time and
place. As long as baseball is played on the Island the
echoes of these "dusky heroes" will remain forever
pronounced against the evening mist that shrouds the
late innings of an August afternoon.
Ted Knorr is a longtime
SABR member and has worked diligently for the past
two years to bring these events to Harrisburg.
Calobe Jackson, Jr. is a SABR member as well as
civic leader and former Vice-President of the
Harrisburg School Board. "Jackie" is Chairman of the
Harrisburg Negro League Commemorative Committee.
Read more about the Negro Leagues
Part 1: "Early Games and the Independent Era"
Part 2: "League Play and Major League Integration"
Baseball in Harrisburg: The First Game"
- Tyrolean Rivalry of 1876
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