By Charles Hallman
Blacks historically had as much to do with Minnesota’s rich baseball legacy as anybody, but this story oftentimes remains in the dark.
“I want to increase awareness of African American history in Minnesota,” declares Frank White, whose book, They Played for the Love of the Game, came out earlier this year and has shed light on the significance of Black baseball players in Minnesota. His late father Louis White played with summertime Black baseball teams as a teenager growing up in St. Paul.
Carl Rogen thought his late grandfather just told tall tales. Phil Brooks learned about his grandfather through relatives. Pete Gorton’s vast knowledge of a man born decades before him grows with each passing day. Steve Winfield is proud to be part of St. Paul’s sandlot legacy.
These “incomplete” stories were told during “Play By Play: Recalling Minnesotans and the Negro Baseball League,” an event held November 17 at the Minneapolis Central Library in downtown Minneapolis. It was “hot stove league” talk — baseball fans always talk about the sport during the off season, but on this occasion they did so with Black players as the main agenda. Rogen and Brooks both had grandfathers who were Black baseball players; Winfield and Gorton, along with White, spent a couple of hours sharing their “inside stories.”
“There just isn’t a lot of documentation. Even the little documentation [there is] are just brief statements [in local newspapers],” noted White on many Black baseball players who spent time on the state’s baseball diamonds over the years.
“What I found in reading about him was how good he was,” said Rogan to the MSR on his grandfather Wilber “Bullet Bob” Rogan (1889-1967), who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. He played multiple positions, hit over .300, and played his last game in an exhibition game, getting three hits at age 48.
Brooks never met his grandfather Will Brooks, who played and managed several teams in the 1920s and 30s. Will Brooks was born in Alabama in 1888, “23 years after the Civil War,” and died in 1950 “almost five years before I was born,” said his grandson. “A lot of the history that I know is from listening to conversations and talking to people and what they had to say.”
Steve and David Winfield both played at St. Paul’s Oxford field as youngsters. David went on to star at the U of M, then the majors, and now has been in the Hall of Fame since 2006. Steve played local ball and later become a youth baseball umpire and coach. “Our support system was our community, our extended family. [We were] raised by a single mom,” noted Steve.
Gorton asked the audience, “Who is John Donaldson?” Donaldson (1891-1970) was called “the greatest colored baseball player of today and of all time” by a Fairmont, Minnesota newspaper in 1927. “The color line prohibited him from showcasing his talent in the major league,” Gorton pointed out.
He later told the MSR, “I’m excited now to tell the stories and find a little more humanity than just the solid statistical numbers” in hopes that one day his efforts will get the Black pitcher into Cooperstown.
“We’ve got a great tradition in baseball in this state,” concluded White.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.