By Charles Hallman
As the weather slowly turns wintry, the hot stove heats up. This is the phrase used to describe baseball talk during the off-season. This time the “stove” topic was about Black baseball players and their historic accomplishments.
“Play By Play – Recalling Minnesotans and the Negro Baseball League” took place November 17 at the downtown Minneapolis’ Central Library. The event was sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Hennepin County Library, and hosted by Frank White, who wrote “They Played for the Love of the Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota” (Minnesota Historical Society, 2016).
White was joined by two descendants of Black ballplayers: Carl Rogan and Phil Brooks; baseball researcher Peter Gorton, and Steve Winfield, who along with his brother David played on the famed St. Paul’s Oxford playground. The two brothers don’t have any members who played in the Negro Leagues but legendary Negro Leaguer Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe once told David, according to Steve, that he played so hard that he would easily be a Negro League star if he had been born earlier than 1951.
“Baseball wasn’t something for us — it was everything for us,” said Steve. “In the summer we were throwing baseballs; in the fall we were throwing rocks, and snowballs [in the winter]. We were always throwing something. David loved baseball. I loved baseball, too.”
David went on to star at the U of M, then the majors, and 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, and [we were] raised by a single mom,” noted Steve, who paid tribute to the brothers’ late mother. “She always was there for us. She was just as excited seeing [David] play in Yankee Stadium in front of 50,000 as she was seeing me play in front of 50 people. She was equally excited for seeing both her boys.”
Wilber “Bullet Joe” Rogan (1889-1967) was inducted in Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. He played multiple positions on several teams, including the Kansas City Monarchs for almost 20 years, and averaged 30 starts per year as a pitcher for a decade. Rogan also batted over .300, often in the cleanup spot even when he pitched, and led the Negro Leagues in home runs in 1922. His last game was at age 48 when he collected three hits against a team of major leaguers in an exhibition contest.
His grandson Carl Rogan told the audience that he often thought his grandfather just told tall baseball tales. “We called him ‘Pops,” recalled Rogan. “He took me to Monarchs games and took me down to the dugout. Until he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, I thought my grandfather was just bragging. It finally occurred to me that my grandfather was giving me a verbal legacy on what he did because he never had a clue that this would ever be published or come to life. I’m thankful that he did that.”
Rogan told the MSR that his grandfather, who once struck out 25 batters in a game, would say, “’I would tell a batter what I am going to pitch and dare him to hit it.’ That to me is the ultimate of confidence that a pitcher needs to have.”
“He had organized the first inner-city Black baseball [game] in Kansas City. He gave back in any way that he could. I don’t think anyone knows about that,” said Rogan of his grandfather.
John Donaldson (1891-1970) threw 13 no-hitters, struck out at least 500 batters three straight years, and played on 37 teams in over 33 years. He then became the first full-time Black scout in the Major Leagues.
But he’s not in the Hall, something Gorton is tirelessly working to change. “The color line prohibited him from showcasing his talent in the major league,” he pointed out. He later told the MSR, “One of the important things is his 400 wins are very important for me…to show he played. I can now tell the stories that come along with those numbers that will change your mind on the significance of John Donaldson.”
One such story Gorton shared with us: “Just last week we found a $500 wager with a Mitchell, South Dakota team where he was going to take a guy off the field every inning in 1922. Satchel Paige was said to do that in the 30s so he wasn’t the first to do these things. John Donaldson was the first to do it, and that was written in the newspapers. He would eventually leave him and the catcher on the field by the ninth inning and he was fine with that.
“I’m excited now to tell the stories and find a little more humanity than just the solid statistical numbers. It’s been a tough journey for me to try to get that down,” Gorton confided.
Phil Brooks never met his late grandfather who died in 1950 “almost five years before I was born,” noted his grandson. Will Brooks played and managed several teams of the 1920s and 30s, including playing right field, and as manager for the Minneapolis Keystone Tigers, a top local Black baseball team. The Tigers and the St. Paul Colored Gophers were once fierce rivals, said White. “They were both professional teams that took on everybody,” noted the author.
His grandparents made their home in Minneapolis, said Phil Brooks. “I found out that my grandfather was my skin color and complexion. People at that time who had fair skin were treated differently and tried to pass for being White. I wanted to see what impact that had on him as a man growing up.”
Phil told the MSR he is eager to learn more about Will: “Most of my relatives are dead and gone. I am going to assume that he wasn’t born in a hospital — probably born at home or somewhere. I know he died in Minneapolis [in 1950] and I was able to purchase his death certificate. I like to know a little bit more about that past history, and see what that connection to the Civil War [Brooks was born in 1888], to slavery and really try to bring that forward.”
Some stories were gleaned from living relatives of ball players but others were from extensive research that wasn’t easy, said White. “I researched Black newspapers from 1884 to 1960. I’ve interviewed over 100 people, and continue to find out more information. There just isn’t a lot of documentation. Even the little documentation is just brief statements [in local newspapers].”
“I’m proud of our legacy,” concluded Steve Winfield. “This is a cool thing that Frank has done.”
“I will continue to tell stories,” pledged White.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.