Texas Negro league baseball precursor for Dodgers' 1948 visit to Fort Worth

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Texas connections

Nine Texans who played in the Negro Leagues are in the Baseball Hall of Fame:

Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub got his start as a teenager with his hometown Dallas Black Giants before two seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs, sandwiched between two years (1951-52) in the U.S. Army.

Andy Cooper: This Waco kid made his mark as a pitcher for the Detroit Stars and Kansas City Monarchs, whom he led to the 1929 pennant and to three others from 1937-40 as player-manager. Pitched 17 innings against the Chicago American Giants in a 1937 playoff game.

Rube Foster: The one-time player and manager made his mark as the founder of the Negro National League in 1920. He is also credited with fostering the aggressive, fast style of the Negro Leagues. As a pitcher long before that, the Calvert-born Texan won 44 consecutive games with the Cuban Giants in 1902.

Willie Foster: The half-brother of Rube Foster, Willie led Chicago to the Negro World Series in 1926 and again in 1927, when he went 18-3. Pitched a complete-game victory in the inaugural East-West All-Star Game in 1933. Lost the next year, a 1-0 decision to Satchel Paige.

Biz Mackey: The catcher from Eagle Pass played from 1918-47 and was voted in one poll the best catcher among all Negro League players. He also mentored teenager and future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella while with the Baltimore Elite Giants.

Louis Santop: "Top" of Tyler town gained famed as a left-handed slugger and catcher for the Hilldale Club of Philadelphia, considered one of the best Negro League teams of all time with three consecutive Eastern Colored League championships from 1923-25.

Hilton Smith: The Giddings native won 20 games in each of his 12 seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs, went 93-11 from 1939-42 and played on seven pennant-winning Kansas City Monarch teams. His best pitch? Advising team management to sign Jackie Robinson.

Willie Wells: From Austin, he is considered one of the best defensive shortstops of all time and certainly one of the first to have power at that position. He had 27 home runs in 1926 for the St. Louis Stars. He is also thought to be the first player to wear a batting helmet, making one out of a hard hat, after a string of beanings.

Smokey Joe Williams: The Seguin native's stint with San Antonio's Negro Texas League franchise was short-lived when Rube Foster signed him on the spot to play for the Chicago American Giants. Williams, whom Ty Cobb said would have been a sure 30-game winner if he'd been allowed in the majors, defeated five Hall of Fame pitchers in exhibition games.

Source: Baseball Hall of Fame

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The black section of Fort Worth's LaGrave Field overflowed with spectators on this most special first Saturday of April 1948.

The exhibition game, the Star-Telegram wrote, between the Brooklyn Dodgers and their minor-league affiliate, the Fort Worth Cats, "was also a carnival for the city's Negro population, which turned out to cheer the Dodgers' Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella."

In reality, of course, the game was the celebration of a liberation of sorts for the city's black community, which boasted its own proud baseball past. This was recognition that despite how they were treated and made to feel, blacks were equal -- and in some cases better -- players of the national pastime.

No federal mandate was required.

The proof of equality was in performance, and no one had to go any further to understand that than to the fields of the Negro leagues, including LaGrave, where black baseball teams had been playing in the Negro Texas League and the Negro Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana League a generation before.

Much of the story of Bob Bailey, Johnson Hill ("Fort Worth's premier third sacker") and pitchers Johnnie "Steel Arm" Harris and Bill Haines, among many others who played in anonymity, has been lost.

The Fort Worth Black Panthers of the 1920s and the Black Cats of the early '30s certainly played with hopes of being the next Smokey Joe Williams, a pitcher for the San Antonio Black Bronchos who was signed on the spot by Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants of the Negro National League.

Mostly, they played because they loved the game and their communities.

"To be on the Fort Worth team, the Dallas team, was a big deal," said Rob Fink, a professor of educational studies at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene and author of Playing in Shadows: Texas and Negro League Baseball.

"For a lot of people that was making the 'Show,' for lack of a better word. For the community, the local team was the center of the action."

All their own

The 1920 Fort Worth Black Panthers of the Negro Texas League were owned and managed by Hiram McGar, a fixture in Fort Worth's black community.

He had owned a saloon at 109 E. 10th Street before it burned in 1912 during one of the city's ugliest episodes. A shooting rampage that started in his establishment over losses in a craps game left two dead, including police officer John Ogletree, and five others wounded.

A white mob retaliated by marching through the black community, flames in hand.

By 1920, with Prohibition on the way and under pressure from the police chief to shut down establishments such as his, McGar switched to soft drinks and built Citizens Drug Store on the property of his saloon.

The idea of a black baseball minor league in Texas wasn't new. The Texas Colored League, established in 1916, was a short-lived venture featuring teams in Fort Worth, Beaumont, Cleburne, Dallas, Galveston, Houston, San Antonio and Waco. The Fort Worth team played at McGar's Park, near Panther Park.

With the emergence of Foster's Negro National League, McGar wanted to give it another chance.

"In the '20s, there's sort of a national movement that says, 'If we're going to be denied access to white communities, we're just going to create our own,'" Fink said.

A deal cut with the white Texas League allowed the black teams to use that league's stadiums when their white counterparts were playing on the road. The Negro Texas League debuted with teams in Fort Worth, Dallas, Beaumont, Houston, Waco and Wichita Falls.

"Most of the games were Sunday and/or Monday because the white team got preference," said Fink, noting that the preference went so far that the Dallas Black Giants had their city-owned stadium taken away from them when the white stadium flooded.

The season, though, turned out to be a special one for the Black Panthers, according to the Fort Worth Record. And good ball was the hallmark.

Innovations were common throughout the Negro Leagues, Fink said.

Babe Ruth had made the majors a home run league. Get a man on first and swing for the fences.

The Negro Leagues played fast and what today is called "small ball." Scoring without getting a ball out of the infield was common practice.

The bunt-and-run became strategic. A leadoff guy reaches on a bunt, the guy behind him bunts, forcing the shortstop to cover second, the second baseman to cover first and the corners rushing the bunted ball. The leadoff runner could then advance to the uncovered third base.

If the third baseman stays back, there are runners on first and second with no outs.

"It was all strategy and moving pieces and kind of a chess-board element," Fink said.

The games recorded in the Record reflect this type of game. Most, such as the Black Panthers' 2-1 18-inning victory over Beaumont on May 1, were low-scoring affairs. Fort Worth, whose pitcher, "Rector" (no first name listed), had 14 strikeouts and one walk, and scored one run each in the first and 18th innings. Beaumont tied the game in the sixth.

Fort Worth won the inaugural season after defeating Dallas, "the village down the creek."

The first season, according to the Record, was a money-maker, with the Fort Worth team generally playing in front of capacity crowds.

"The negro league games are not only good shows from a baseball standpoint, but they also present an element of comedy that keeps the crowd in an uproar," read the Record.

"Special reservations are always made for white patrons."

Showtime

One of the great traditions of black baseball in America was barnstorming, or traveling teams made up of black players who wanted to play but had nowhere to do so. There was no organized league, so they picked up and found their way to the nearest town for a game with guys who had a team there. And then they moved on to the next.

The Fort Worth Wonders were just such a team that played in the early 1900s.

The teams would pass a plate and patrons would tip for the performance. Teams of the Negro Texas League of the 1920s and the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana League of the 1930s did this as well.

The Black Panthers might have a league game in Houston. So on the way down there, they would stop in Corsicana, perhaps, one night for an exhibition and another in Huntsville to make a little extra money, Fink said.

Comedic routines in the spirit of the Harlem Globetrotters and "Shadow Ball" were fan favorites.

Shadow Ball was a sort of pantomime that players would perform as part of a warm-up.

The pitcher would act as if he was hurling a ball toward the plate and the batter would act as if he were hitting every pitch. The fielders would field virtual balls and go through a number of possible base combinations, including double plays.

"They were so fluid and used to doing it so quickly, fans wouldn't know if they were doing shadow ball or the real thing," Fink said. "It looked like a real game."

The "big-league" Negro professional teams worked in the fun stuff, too, while touring, Fink said.

Satchel Paige was famous for his showmanship during the actual exhibition game, including intentionally loading the bases, then telling his team of fielders to go sit down. He'd then strike out the side.

High Pockets

Emancipation Day of 1920 -- more commonly referred to as Juneteenth these days -- featured the Black Panthers as host to the San Antonio Black Bronchos and their star first baseman, High Pockets.

The "phenomenal work" of High Pockets, according to the Record, had "attracted a string of followers," white and black alike.

If High Pockets had a conventional name like, perhaps, "John" and "Smith," history is left to guess.

"That's one of the things that's difficult doing research on teams, especially ones like in Fort Worth and Dallas," Fink said. "In the paper they would refer to them, like, High Pockets."

The Record reveals a Fort Worth outfielder named Big Red. In an account of the Black Panthers' 17-1 victory on Aug. 3, 1920, "Big Red, local outfielder, had a long triple to the deepest corner of the lot."

Big Red even had a nickname. He was known as the "Black Bambino." Another, Fink said, was Black Tank of the San Antonio team.

"We don't know what his name is," Fink said. "But everybody in 1923 knew who Black Tank was."

And everybody in these parts also knew who High Pockets was, apparently. He was a 6-foot-10 first baseman whose chatter kept the crowd "in fits of laughter."

He could play, too.

"A home run by High Pockets... with a man on base was one of the deciding factors in a 4-1 victory over the Black Panthers."

The Negro Texas League continued into the late 1920s. When it became defunct, its replacement, the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana League, went out of business in 1931, a victim of the Depression.

Texas, Fink said, was one of the few states that did a decent job of integrating New Deal programs. For example, there were all-black companies of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which had baseball teams.

Games at Stop Six Park are mentioned more than a few times in newspaper accounts.

"What happens is people want jobs," Fink said. "You see softball and baseball games between the two camps start to be the prevalent games."

Major League Baseball's crowning achievement is the significant role it ultimately played in advancing equal rights for all.

The Negro Leagues in Texas had served its purpose in giving dignity by proving all the myths wrong.

"You can see that community pride with a group who is discriminated against," Fink said.

"One of the things for the community of sports is it allows them to say, 'No, look we've got pitchers who throw over 100 mph, too. We have better players than you.' So it's a big deal."

Jackie Robinson went 1 for 4 in a 5-3 Dodgers victory that April day in 1948. Few people remembered the minor scrape between Pee Wee Reese and Cats first baseman Dee Fondy.

There were more important things to keep in mind, namely, there was no longer a place for minor league baseball for black players in Texas.

And that was OK.

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