Thursday, February 7, 2013

Batter Up!

Today we introduce a new blogger for History Center Notes and Queries: Mark Meyer.

Mark is a lifelong resident of Allen County, graduating from Bishop Dwenger and IPFW.  His career path has taken him through management in Human Services, Television, and Online Sales. He’s had an interest in old things since age 11 when he traded a new ’64 Mantle for a stack of ’54 Topps that were “just too cool”.  He has produced a special featuring the locally lensed 1962 feature film “Night of Evil” and researched and published historical newsletters on his 1920s Forest Hill (Driving Park Extended) neighborhood. Mark is widowed and the “father of three beautiful daughters and three equally beautiful granddaughters”.

by Mark Meyer

There are two photos of him in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. As you enter the special exhibit you'll find him pictured standing behind the Philadelphia team he managed to the 1906 World Championship. Around the corner you'll see an earlier image of him with teammates from the Midwest's premier barnstorming team of the 1890s. But neither photo notes that he was one of, if not the, last African-American to play on a professional baseball team until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier 50 years later. That professional team was Fort Wayne’s entry in the Western-Interstate League.

The player was Solomon White, better known as Sol White. White had eight years of experience playing baseball professionally when he arrived at the Nickel Plate station in Fort Wayne in April of 1895. In the previous eight years he had played on teams in other white leagues but had distinguished himself as a talent on some of the best “colored” teams of the time. These included the Pittsburgh Keystones, the New York Gorhams and the original Cuban Giants. His work with New York’s Cuban Giants in 1894 apparently caught the attention of the Fort Wayne organizer/manager, C.F. Jewell. Jewell hired White to play second base for the city’s entry into the new Western-Interstate League. The W-I League originally consisted of 6 teams from Indiana (Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, and Lafayette) and Illinois (Aurora, Joliet, and Bloomington). The fact that Jewell was an organizer of the league, and already had White under contract, likely played a role in the new league failing to adopt a rule barring players of color. That practice had been in place in the National League for several years and the minor leagues had followed suit. White found himself in a very unique situation that spring.

From the start, the team and the league were on shaky financial ground. The team opened the season with an exhibition game against Cleveland of the National League. They were soundly beaten in front of a modest home-town crowd. Three home games against a Toledo team followed. The games, played at the ball field at Lakeside Park failed to draw the crowds hoped for by the promoters. From that point on Fort Wayne newspaper articles reported on the financial conditions of the team and league with the same attention they gave to game coverage. Despite the financial uncertainties and the added pressure brought on by his race, White excelled on the playing field. Nearly every game reported upon in the newspaper noted White’s skill with the glove or his prowess at the plate. Perhaps no account better illustrates White’s experience than this excerpt from an Indianapolis newspaper: “White, a colored man, played second for Fort Wayne. When the game commenced and was seen by the bleachers that a negro was in the game, several uncomplimentary remarks were made, but after White demonstrated that he is a fine ball player, the sentiment changed and the negro’s playing was applauded.” The challenges were not limited to the crowd. In one game against Aurora the opposing manager knocked White down as he was rounding 3rd for home. In another he was the butt of the joke in an attempted trick play. Despite the conditions White posted impressive numbers at the plate. Through the first nine league games he was batting in the lead-off spot going 18 for 46, with 2 stolen bases and 12 runs scored. By the end of May it was apparent the league and the team were in danger of folding. Fortunately for White, the right team was coming to town.

Fort Wayne’s final home opponent was the Page Fence Giants, the premier barnstorming team of the day. The Giants were a very unique venture sponsored by a bicycle shop and the Page Fence Company of Adrian, Michigan. The team traveled town-to-town in a sixty-foot-long, gilt-ornamented railroad parlor car. Before the opening game the players would parade through town performing tricks on shiny new bicycles. They’d follow that performance with a brass band concert which in turn was followed by a well-played game of baseball. All of the talented musician/athletes on this popular team were African-American. White performed very well, leading Fort Wayne to victory in two out of three games. In game two he managed four hits, including two triples. The second baseman’s performance led to an offer to join the barnstormers but White stuck to his contract with the Fort Wayne team. A week later White’s obligation ended when the W-I League and the Fort Wayne team folded. The next day, according to the Fort Wayne News, “Sol White is now covering second base for the Page Fence Giants”.

By White’s own historical account of the early Negro Leagues he was the last African American to play on a professional white team in the East. Nationally, only a few players in the Kansas State League followed. There were also a few African-American teams that later competed in white semi-pro leagues but by the end of the century that practice was dead as well. His move to the Page Fence Giants was the start of an illustrious career in “Colored Baseball”. He was a player-manager for the World-Champion Philadelphia Giants1904 to1906 and played a role in two new national leagues: The National Negro League and the Eastern Colored League. He last coached in 1926 for the Newark Stars and ended his career as a newspaper columnist who championed the contributions of African-American ball players. Following the 1906 season he authored, “The History of Colored Baseball”. It remains a rare and invaluable record of the early days of segregated baseball.

White’s stay in our hometown may have been brief but his achievement is a notable chapter in the colorful history of local sports. Against huge odds, Sol White excelled at a game he loved and managed to keep the color barrier open just a little bit longer.

This story written by Mark originally appeared in the Fort Wayne News Sentinel.

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