Rekindling baseball history lost to segregation

Over time, Frank White has been able to identify at least seven players in this photo from the Uptown Sanitary Shop team from 1923. (Submitted photo)
Over time, Frank White has been able to identify at least seven players in this photo from the Uptown Sanitary Shop team from 1923. (Submitted photo)

Growing up, baseball was Frank White’s life.

When the local historian was a kid, he and his friends would play baseball every single day they could manage.

“Sometimes we would take a break to eat,” White said.

If only six kids could make it, they would amend the rules to keep on playing.

“I played because I wanted to be like my dad,” White said.

His father, Louis “Pud” White, played for the Twin Cities Colored Giants during the heyday of Minnesota baseball.

“Pud,” short for Pudding Pie, even won a battling title in 1946 with a .600, a record still held today.

But like many of his African-American colleagues, his name is unknown because of segregation in athletics.

As Frank researched the mostly oral retelling of black baseball, he realized that the dense history of black baseball has been largely forgotten due to the segregation of baseball.

White gave a presentation on his book “They Played for the Love of the Game“ during a Looking Through a New Lens program hosted by Edina Public Schools Feb. 11, at the Edina Community Center, where he highlighted the struggles for black baseball players and the “spectacular” athletes lost to time.

From Colored Giants to Robinson
Despite obscurity, the athleticism was strong in the early 1900s in Minnesota.

According to White, the St. Paul Colored Gophers began the legacy of “excellent baseball” in Minnesota. They were named the Black National Champions with a winning percentage of .838, against teams that included the Saints and the Millers in 1907.

While the Twins have worn throwback jerseys to honor this team at least three times, the history is still relatively unknown.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson took first base to cheers and jeers alike, marking the first time an African-American played in a major league game.

As White researched, the coincidences ran deep. Howie Schultz, the Dodgers player who was replaced by Robinson, was White’s high school coach.

“What a tie for me,” White said.

While Robinson’s inclusion in the game was a milestone, it wasn’t the end-all for segregation in baseball.

“Maybe people think Jackie Robinson kicked the door open,” White said. “When he retired, three teams were still segregated. We don’t think about that. In fact, the Minnesota Twins spring training facility wasn’t desegregated until the mid-60s.”

Back in Minnesota, segregation in baseball was also present until roughly 1947, when the state tournament became open to all.

Most of the history White touched on his presentation was from the first half of the 20th century, a time when live baseball was still a major choice for entertainment.

Thousands would go to northern and southern Minnesota to watch games at 25 cents apiece.

Traveling teams played most of the time, while other semi-professional teams played only on the weekends so the players could work during the week.

Proceeds from the games would be split 60 percent for the winners and 40 percent for the losers, so for maximum profit, they would take the fewest number of players possible.

In several of the team photos he found from this team, White noted several players who showed up in more than one team.

“People would just skip around back then looking for the best deal,” White said.

One point of interest for White was to consider how teams got from one town to the other in a pre-interstate world.

“I always think, ‘How did teams travel?’ Car? Trains?” White said. “There was no 494 or 94.”

While some can assume that their athleticism transcended the racial problems of the day, White cleared up the misconception.

“People say to me, ‘Oh, they got to travel and play ball!’” White said. “It wasn’t that easy.”

White talked about the green book, which let African-Americans know which restaurants, gas stations and hotels they were allowed to use while traveling.

Some players when traveling to Duluth would have to avoid towns such as Hinckley, which had a police officer waiting to pull people over based on the race of who was driving.

“Many thought that happened in the South, not here,” White said. “Our great North Star state – we had our struggles. We can have an impact in a change or not going back to that history.”

In the 1930s, black players couldn’t stay in hotels in downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul.

One place they would have to turn to included the Phyllis Wheatley settlement in North Minneapolis.

West of that building was Sumner Field, which is where the major rivalry games between Minneapolis and St. Paul teams would take place.

To add to coincidences, White discovered that his cousin’s cousin was born and raised in the projects just north of Sumner Field. His relative would become the man known worldwide as simply Prince.

Often forgotten
While some players like St. Paul-raised Dave Winfield ended up in numerous hall of fames (and much deserved, as Winfield began playing for the Padres while he was a senior year in high school and is one of only four players to be drafted by three professional sports), many went unknown.

This includes monumental firsts who also transcend race.

Toni Stone, the first woman to play in the Negro League, played for the Twin Cities Colored Giants.

Harold “Babe” Price, also a Giants player, was a pitcher, who in one game had 22 strikeouts against the Braves.

A newspaper clipping called it “one of the best games in current baseball.”

“He is another guy you haven’t heard of, and he was signed by the Dodgers,” White said.

Some Minnesotan athletes got to be recognized on buildings and plaques, although passersby may not know why.

Jimmy Lee, an accomplished sportswriter, began as a baseball player and later a golfer, winning the Minnesota Negro Open, later renamed to the Bronze Tournament. The Jimmy Lee Recreation Center in St. Paul is named after him.

Bobby Marshall is recognized at the University of Minnesota for his prowess as a football player.

But if White has his say, the legacies can live on.

White is working with the Saints to have a Roy Campanella Day in this upcoming season.

Campanella was the first African-American to play in the American Association, and in the 35 games he played for the Saints, he had 13 home-runs and 39 RBIs.

“He deserves to be known in this town too,” White said.

His book is available at the Minnesota Historical Society website mnhs.org.