Preserving baseball’s black history

St. Paul Colored Gophers
Between 1907 and 1910, the St. Paul Colored Gophers dominated local leagues, winning more than 80 percent of their total games played. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 — and even before Rube Foster founded the Negro National League in 1920 — black athletes in Minnesota were playing baseball, and playing it well.

As early as the 1870s and 1880s, Minnesotan players like Bud Fowler and Prince Honeycutt (often thought to be Minnesota’s first black ballplayer) were the stars of the state’s amateur teams, playing alongside their white teammates.

Alas, by the end of the century, a series of gentlemen’s agreements and unwritten rules set by team owners had conspired to segregate baseball nationwide.

Barnstorming

That didn’t keep black athletes from America’s favorite pastime, however.

From the Twin Cities metro to Greater Minnesota, black baseball teams traveled around the state, challenging other local squads, both black and white, to games and series. This practice was called barnstorming, and it was the way many black players were able to work as career athletes, despite being barred from most professional teams.

Often, these athletes would play for a pittance, dividing profits from ticket sales among the players.

Among the most prolific teams in the Twin Cities were the St. Paul Colored Gophers, the St. Paul Colored Giants, the Minneapolis Keystones and the Uptown Sanitary Shop team. Between 1907 and 1910, the Gophers dominated the field, winning over 400 games — more than 80 percent of their total games played.

Frank White, author of They Played for the Love of the Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota from Minnesota Historical Society Press, grew up in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood around some of these barnstorming teams of the 1950s.

His dad, Lou White, was one of the Minnesota greats, with a batting average of .600. Many of Lou White’s teammates, like third baseman Cecil Littles, were equally skilled.

“[Littles] would throw guys out on his knees,” Frank White said in an interview. “I haven’t seen another guy like him play.”

Facing racism

Despite their talent, many of these Minnesota athletes were never considered for major league play because of their race.

“Every player wasn’t a great player, but there were a number of players that would never get a chance,” Frank White said. “Even a chance to try out.”

While barnstorming gave players an opportunity to play professional baseball, traveling while black in late 19th and early 20th centuries Minnesota came with its own perils.

White recalled the barnstorming tours he took with his father. In one city, the team ate at a restaurant that displayed a racist caricature of the players above the bar. In another, a diner they planned to eat at locked the door and put out a closed sign when they approached.

White couldn’t understand why his father and his teammates seemed unperturbed or even laughed off the situation.

But since then, his dad’s perspective has become clearer.

“If things weren’t going your way, you had to let it go,” Frank White said. “My father and his teams were taking these indignities so they could come back and play again.”

New chances

When the MLB officially integrated in 1947, a new world of opportunities opened for black players. Icons of the sport like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks joined the league’s ranks, forever changing the way the game was played.

Among the first teams to integrate were the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants. The last was the Boston Red Sox, which didn’t integrate until 1959 when Jackie Robinson had already retired from the game.

The New York Yankees tried to recruit Lou White, but he ultimately refused due to a persistent elbow injury. Instead, he stayed in Minnesota with his family and kept playing baseball, basketball and fast-pitch softball for pay around the Midwest.

Even after integration, black MLB recruits still came up against immense barriers. Oftentimes, after joining a major league team, black players were first sent to minor league affiliate teams to earn their stripes.

Those teams were frequently in the South, where segregation and Jim Crow laws made life excruciating. Black players often couldn’t stay in the same hotels as the rest of their team. According to Frank White, these living and working conditions drove many talented players away from the game.

Willie Mays
Willie Mays

The end of an era

But with the MLB dominating national attention, the market for black baseball was dwindling, and by the mid-1950s, most of the once-prolific black teams dried up completely. Communities surrounding the teams also suffered as they declined.

Many barnstorming teams were sponsored by local black-owned hotels, restaurants and shops, which struggled as fewer people came out to watch their teams play.

However, historians, like White, have worked hard to make sure the memory of these athletes and communities lives on. A lot of teams weren’t very well-documented, and records are scattered throughout various archives and family collections.

White has traveled around Minnesota, meeting the families of players, hearing their stories and collecting them to pass down to future generations.

Preserving black history

Oftentimes, when White presents his research, members of the audience will rush up afterward to tell him about their own family members who played on these competitive Minnesotan teams.

This always heartens White, who got into his line of research to preserve the stories of real Minnesotan players who lived in and gave back to the greater community — and to remember players that history often forgets, like his father.

“I wanted to write about the people who grew up here or who migrated here and stayed,” White said. “That was black Minnesota baseball to me.”


Hannah Catlin is a public relations intern with the Minnesota Historical Society.