Black History Month: Eastern Iowa proved fertile ground for black baseball
From barnstorming teams to Cedar Rapids' own, players found eager fans
It euphemistically was known as “Black Ball,” a style of baseball that was loose and athletic and fun, and that attracted enthusiastic crowds everywhere it was played during the first half of the 20th century.
It was, in large part, a product of big cities, baseball centers such as Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, but it was a phenomenon shared across the nation.
Cedar Rapids, though nowhere near the size of those cities, not only embraced barnstorming black baseball teams, but for decades even sponsored a semipro team of its own. Black baseball’s glorious history traveled through Eastern Iowa.
April 15 has become a universal day of celebration throughout baseball. On that date in 1947, Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In taking his position at first base in the season opener against the Boston Braves, he became the first black player to play in a major league game since 1887, and the first in an “organized baseball” contest since 1889.
That spring afternoon marked the start of the racial integration of the national pastime, and perhaps of the nation.
During the 60-year gap between Fleet Walker, a deft player from Ohio who was the last black man to play alongside white counterparts in American baseball, and Robinson, black stars played with the same passion and verve as their white counterparts.
Every year, beginning even before 1900, Negro teams from New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania barnstormed throughout the Midwest and the South, playing all challengers — black and white — for little more than meal money and respect.
Eastern Iowa benefited from those games, as they gave the region an opportunity to enjoy part of the game denied to fans and players in the white, major leagues.
The town’s first documented brush with a barnstorming black team occurred in April 1897. The Adrian (Mich.) Page Fence Giants stopped in Cedar Rapids to take on the Belden Hills Rabbits at the old Athletic Park (near Roosevelt Middle School).
The Giants were beginning what would become a 125-12 touring season, and beat the local professionals 2-0.
The game featured a visit by one of the greatest of the early black players, Grant “Home Run” Johnson, and also by a young infielder named Charlie Grant. The latter became infamous in 1901 when John J. McGraw (another Cedar Rapids baseball alum and Hall of Fame manager) tried to pass him off as Native American to skirt the de-facto ban on black players and sign him to the big-league New York Giants.
Despite the loss to the barnstormers that afternoon, local fans loved the spectacle. According to the Evening Gazette’s account of the game, “The only disagreeable feature ... was the disgraceful conduct of several young men who occupied seats in the bleachers. These young men ... are amateur ball players ... a repetition of their conduct will precipitate action on the part of the Athletic Association ...”
C.R. gets its own team
Black barnstormers made several more trips to Linn and Benton counties over the next few years, and by 1909 the appreciation of the local baseball community emboldened Clarence Williams to start a local all-black team, the Cedar Rapids Colored Giants.
Clarence “Baldy” Williams had been born into the baseball tradition in the small mining town of Buxton in 1886. Buxton baseball was deadly serious, and the amateur team, the Buxton Wonders, traveled to Kansas City three times between 1909 and 1911 to take on the unofficial national Negro baseball champions, the Monarchs.
In early 1909, Williams had been hired on as an usher at the new Majestic Theater, a vaudeville show house on Third Street NE, and he had brought his love of the game to his new home.
Each year until 1937, he would advertise in the local papers that he was organizing the team for the coming year and that any black ballplayer was welcome to try out.
Even that requirement was eased in years when there simply weren’t enough black players to fill the roster. For years, the squad included not only Clarence but his brother Adolph “Skinny” Wilson in the infield, Sinclair Packing’s Alnutt brothers, Alvin Hurst, Tim Mims, Les Ament and Lloyd and Leroy Capes. All the players labored during the day at whatever work they could find, whether it was at one of the meatpacking plants or for the city’s parks department or even shining shoes, before gathering in the early evening to practice and play the game they loved.
The Colored Giants were extremely successful. Piling into cars for weekend road trips throughout the summers, they played the local Cedar Rapids white squads as well as teams from across Iowa and surrounding states.
Every year they earned local praise not only for their athleticism and speed, but for their baseball intelligence.
The Cedar Rapids press often was racially blind when describing the Giants’ games, only seldom describing it as a “black” or “Negro” team. The team disbanded during the Great Depression, and Clarence Wilson went to work for the sheriff’s department. But the legacy of his teams and their players is a proud piece of Cedar Rapids history.
By 1920, on the national level, Rube Foster had established the first formal Negro League, and black teams were forming throughout Iowa. A Chicago touring team, Gilkerson’s Colored Giants, made periodic trips through Muscatine, Davenport and the rest of Eastern Iowa.
In 1931, Gilkerson’s team came to Cedar Rapids and gave a young Hal Trosky his first chance to face quasi-major league talent. That 1931 Gilkerson’s team included aging Kansas City Monarchs star Hurley McNair and the ever-dangerous Walter “Steel Arm” Davis. They held Trosky hitless that day while dispatching Paul Speraw’s local squad.
Negro League teams regularly barnstormed through Cedar Rapids throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to Kansas City, Negro League teams like the Philadelphia Stars, the Memphis Red Sox and the Indianapolis Clowns played exhibitions in Cedar Rapids, and almost always enjoyed an enthusiastic welcome from a baseball-adoring public.
By 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues, Iowa’s two-sport superstar (and future football Hall of Famer) Emlen Tunnel had broken Cedar Rapids’ professional racial ceiling when he played six games for the Class C Cedar Rapids Rockets.
Two years after that, Arnie Green, and then Negro American League veteran Horace Garner a few years later, took the field in the local Manufacturers-and-Jobbers industrial league play.
Garner, in particular, had significant experience as a baseball desegregator. In 1953, the 29-year old Garner, along with 18-year old Felix Mantilla and a 19-year old power hitter named Henry Aaron, played a full season in the South Atlantic League. Not only were the three the first black players in that particular league, but the cities in which they played were some of the most segregated in the nation.
Yet Garner and his teammates held their ground. It was the league that ultimately relented.
Garner played well in the M & J and was followed by perhaps one of the greatest black players ever to lace ’em up for a Cedar Rapids team. Art “Superman” Pennington played for the Cedar Rapids Indians in 1953 and 1954, just a few years from a Negro League career that had seen him play in three East-West All-Star Games.
Even at age 31, he more than held his own at Cedar Rapids, finishing second in the 3-I league batting race against competition that included future major league stars Roger Maris, Luis Aparicio and Earl Battey.
Pennington’s career spanned what might be called the Golden Age of the Negro Leagues, before full integration began to rob it of its young stars, and he played either with or against some of the greatest black players to ever take the field. He told stories of battles with Satchel Paige (Paige generally won), Alex and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, “Cool Papa” Bell and many others. He even faced a young Cuban pitcher named Fidel Castro during a stint in winter ball in Cuba.
In his own right, he was one of the greatest players, of any race, to play in Cedar Rapids.
Cedar Rapids enjoys a tremendous baseball history. Part of that narrative comes in the stories of the black players and the black teams that played here during the years before Jackie Robinson, and in some of the years after Robinson’s groundbreaking game.
Baseball history is, in part, both black and white. Tomorrow’s stories, though, will be told in color.
Editor’s note: Bill Johnson is a Cedar Rapids historian who spent 30 years working for the U.S. Navy.