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Blackball in Harrisburg

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..  The Afrolumens Project is proud to present this groundbreaking history of the Negro Leagues in Harrisburg.

by Ted Knorr and Calobe Jackson, Jr.

The 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.

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.

Baseball 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 Spottswood Poles in his baseball uniform. 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 Streets.

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, Georgia 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 Indianapolis.

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-and-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 and Gibson were the Black Gehrig and Ruth a decade later, I'm not sure to whom you would compare the duo of Beckwith and Charleston.

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 thereafter.

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 it.

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 field.

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 outfield.

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, Pennsylvania, on July 24, 1944.

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 National Cemetery.

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, Massachusetts.

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.

Related Articles:

The First Game
Read more about the 1867 game between the Harrisburg Monrovians and the Philadelphia Pythians

The Olympic - Tyrolean Rivalry of 1876

Negro Leagues in Harrisburg Part 1: "Early Games and the Independent Era"

Negro Leagues in Harrisburg Part 2: "League Play and Major League Integration"


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