Baseball - Woven With Words

 

From Eddie Daye to the Present Day: The African American Experience with Minor League Baseball in Reading

Brian C. Engelhardt

 

 All we can do is rekindle the storied past as best we can that these gentlemen (and women) created against all odds in a very different time and place.  As long as baseball is played [here] the echoes of these "dusky heroes” will remain forever pronounced against the evening mist that shrouds the late innings of an August afternoon.

            —from “BlackBall in Harrisburg,” by Ted Knorr and Calobe Jackson, Jr.

 

Tales of “Gob,” “Hot Dog,” Freddie Beck, and the Lost Story of Eddie Daye

 

Minor league baseball in Reading goes back to the late nineteenth century, when several teams played in the low minor leagues (Adams 2003, 9).  Beginning in 1919 and for the next twenty years, Reading had a team in the International League.  The players on these teams were all white; an extension of the unofficial “gentlemen’s agreement” to exclude African Americans from baseball that had been reached by the owners of the organized baseball teams in 1887  (Kashatus 2004, 11).

 

According to local baseball historian Dr. David Voigt, professor emeritus at Albright College, at some point between 1887 and 1900, Eddie Daye, an African American from Reading, tried unsuccessfully to play in each of the two existing major leagues.  Dr. Voigt recalls that the information on Daye and his situation consisted of a few short items from the Sporting News that gave little other information except that Daye possessed some degree of talent (Voigt 2006).  Almost as sad as the plight that confronted Daye is the fact that there is otherwise no available account of his unsuccessful struggle to play in the major leagues or of the tenacity he must have had to pursue his goal under those circumstances.

 

Barred from the white “organized” leagues, African Americans went about forming their own leagues in the early 1900s, called the “Negro Leagues,” in which several players from Reading played.  Unfortunately, the accomplishments all of the players in those leagues went unreported in any of the local Reading newspapers.  Thus, most accounts of local participation in the Negro Leagues have been through word of mouth passed down by the participants, their family members, and their friends.  There are several former members of the local African American community whose accomplishments are currently remembered.

 

Reading resident Elton Butler, Jr., relates that his late father, Elton “Gob” Butler, Sr., started playing with local Berks Lodge 47 of the Elks of the World, known as “The Colored Elks.”  He then played first base with several Negro League and semi-pro teams, including the New York Colored Giants.  The younger Butler explained that his father’s nickname “Gob” arose “because he would gobble up everything that would come his way over at first base.”  Butler also recounted with a bittersweet laugh: “My Dad kept seven or eight of his old Negro League uniforms after he stopped playing.  One day he asked me if I was interested in any of them—they were all in great shape and all had the names on from these different Negro League teams you would recognize.  I said no, since they were all made of wool and were scratchy.  So he threw them out.  At the time I just didn’t realize what he had there and how valuable they were” (Butler, Jr. 2006).

 

Freddie Beck, a catcher and second baseman, was a prominent local player with a career that spanned more than forty years, during which he played on more than seventy-five teams and in an estimated three thousand games.  Beck enjoyed tours of duty with both the Harrisburg Giants and the New York Cuban Giants of the Negro National League.  He also played for different international teams in Cuba (Flannery 1993).

 

Beck has been recognized locally at least twice for his baseball accomplishments.  In 1983, he was elected to the Berks County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.  Forty years before, he had been recognized in a “Freddie Beck Day” that was held in 1944 at Pendora Park in Reading before four thousand fans.  That event was the first time in Berks County history that an African American athlete was honored at a public event.  Beck, then forty-three, caught the 1-0 victory for the local team he was playing for at the time. Notably, it was a team comprised of both white and black players (Flannery 1993).

 

Frank Gilyard, curator of the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, also recalled the career of Dorsey “Hot Dog” Perry, who, like many young African American players of the time, started out playing for the Colored Elks, then went on to play for several African American semi-pro teams in the area.  According to Gilyard, “Hot Dog,” a crowd favorite, earned his nickname through his colorful method of catching the ball (Gilyard 2005-06).

 

These names and stories are the tip of an iceberg of information on the baseball history of the Reading-Berks African American community—information that, like an iceberg in warm water, will eventually melt away as the memories and stories of the original participants fade with their passing.  A challenge for the community will be to preserve and chronicle those memories that remain.

 

The Reading Indians Come to Town: Welcome “Mudcat,” “Swampfire,” and “Hammerin’ Hal”

 

When Cleveland moved its Class A Eastern League franchise to Reading in 1952—playing as the Reading Indians—it ended a ten-year period during which Reading had had no minor league team.  During the hiatus, baseball had changed: the so-called “color line” had been broken and teams (though not all of them) were no longer excluding African American players.  Significantly, the Cleveland organization had been among the leaders in pursuing African American players, beginning with the 1947 signing of Negro League star Larry Doby, the first African American player to play in the American League.

 

Immediate beneficiaries of Cleveland’s policies were the Reading Indians’ fans, who were now able to see a number of talented African American players they would not have been able to see play just a few years before.  Among the more prominent African American players were:

 

  • Brooks Lawrence, who pitched for the team in 1952, and went on to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds.

 

  • Billy Harrell, who in 1953 was named the Most Valuable Player in the Eastern League, played parts of several seasons in the major leagues, and who was inducted into the Reading Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

 

  • Jim “Mudcat” Grant, who pitched for the team in 1956 and went on to a 14-year major league career in which he became the first African American pitcher to win 20 games.  He was inducted into the Reading Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004.

 

  • Mitchell June, who led the team in RBIs in 1957.

 

  • Stan Turner, who led the team in home runs in 1958.

 

  • Walt Bond, who tied for the team lead in home runs in 1959, and went on to play several years in the major leagues.

 

  • Julius “Swamp Fire” Grant, younger brother of Mudcat Grant, who led the team in wins, ERAs, and strikeouts in 1960, the second of his two years with Reading.

 

  • Harold Jones, known as “Hammerin’ Hal” during his time in Reading, who in 1960 hit 34 home runs (a franchise record for 44 years) and went on to play briefly with Cleveland.

 

  • Dave Mann, who played four seasons in Reading from 1956-1959, hit .301 over the course of that period, led the team in batting average for three years, led the Eastern League in stolen bases each year, and led in triples twice.  In 1958 he was named Most Valuable Player in the Eastern League, and was inducted into the Reading Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.

 

As a whole, the local community enthusiastically accepted these players.  They were cheered at the ballpark and featured regularly in articles in the local papers.  Their presence was an indication that the conditions in baseball had improved for African Americans players.  However, several of these players, most notably Dave Mann, would encounter problems in seeking further advancement to the major leagues—problems still rooted in the 1877 “gentlemen’s agreement.”

 

The Door That Wouldn’t Open

 

In an article in the Reading Eagle in 1999, Mike Drago wrote, “Even a decade after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in the major leagues, things hadn’t changed a whole lot in professional baseball.  Star black players eventually, grudgingly, were invited to The Show, but for the marginal guys, the door never swung open” (Drago, “Mann” 1999).  Dave Mann’s statistics show that in each of his years in Reading, he tore up Eastern League pitching and ran wild on the bases.  Despite this, he remained at Class A Reading until he was traded to the Red Sox organization in 1959.  Ultimately Mann never had an opportunity to play at the major league level, ending his twelve-year career in 1963 after 1,500 minor league games with over 600 stolen bases.

 

Mann, now semi-retired as sports editor of The Facts newspaper in Seattle, recently discussed this.  He says, with half a sigh and half a chuckle, “I guess some people just didn’t see what I would have liked them to” (Mann 2005).  He spoke about his frustration with the fact that he didn’t get to the major leagues in a Reading Eagle interview with Drago at the time of Mann’s induction to the Reading Baseball Hall of Fame in August of 1999: “I spent the best part of my career, the grandeur part of my career, in Reading.  Of course I would have liked for it to be another place, like Triple A, or the majors.  That’s just the way it played out. I couldn’t go anywhere else, so I had to play right there” (Drago, “Mann” 1999).

 

Mann’s circumstances were aggravated by the fact that Cleveland’s Double A team was located in Mobile, Alabama, where African American and white ballplayers were not permitted to play together.  Double A ball was thus not an option, and spots at Triple A San Diego were limited due to a player co-op agreement with the ownership there.  Mann talked of his frustration at the time: “It was the ’50s and I was much aware of the times, and the places and everything else.  It was upsetting to a point, just like it was to anyone else in the business.  The bad part was that I saw guys who I knew weren’t playing ball no better than I was (and they were getting their chances in the big leagues).”  Mann ultimately (and unfairly) came down on himself: “I was striving to get (to the big leagues), but that door just didn’t open.  I wasn’t angry with anybody; if anything I was angry at myself.  I thought I should have done a little bit more to make it so outstanding that they couldn’t say no” (Drago, “Mann” 1999).

 

The careers of some other former Reading Indians involved similar patterns.  Before he was able to play a full season with Cleveland, Billy Harrell had to spend four years at Triple A—performing at a high level in each year—even though Cleveland kept a shortstop on their roster who hit in the low .200s.  After his record-setting year at Reading, Harold Jones had only two brief stints with Cleveland despite two years at Triple A in which he drove in 100 runs and hit nearly 30 home runs each year as well as a third year in which he hit .300 with the Indians’ Triple A team before being traded to another organization.  Neither Mitchell June nor Stan Turner reached the major leagues, despite fine performances throughout their minor league careers.

 

Mudcat Grant, a teammate of each of these former Reading Indians either in the minor leagues or at Cleveland, is now a jazz musician, active with several charities, and author of Thirteen Black Aces, a book on the thirteen African American pitchers who each won twenty games.  Grant recently reflected on problems encountered by African American players at that time: “There was not just an issue of whether a black player was better than a white player in order to get a position.  There was another issue that certain teams had—which was how many blacks they had on the team.  For black baseball players it was just a way of life they had to deal with” (Grant 2005).

 

Although at that time the “color line” in baseball had been nominally broken, attitudes and policies within professional baseball had to change before there would be a level playing field for African American players. Fortunately, things eventually did improve over the course of the ensuing decades.  As times moved on in baseball, so did the franchises in Reading.  The Indians left town twice—in 1961, then again in 1965.  In between each of the Indians’ exits, the Reading Red Sox spent two years in town, but they left after the 1964 season.

 

Philadelphia moved its Double A franchise to Reading, with 1967 being the inaugural season for the Reading Phillies.  Over the last forty years (most notably the last twenty) the Reading Phillies have not only set attendance records, winning a number of awards in the process, but also have created a “Reading Baseball  Hall of Fame,” honoring a number of players who have played professionally in Reading over the years, including several African Americans.  Honoring an African American player, a novelty in 1944 with “Freddie Beck Day,” is now a regular and important part of local sports tradition.

 

However, possibly the most important contribution that the Reading Phillies have made to the Reading African American community is just now becoming a reality—the development of a youth stadium next to the Lauer’s Park Elementary School.

 

The Lauer’s Park Elementary School is located in Reading’s inner city.  A large number of the students at Lauer’s Park are African American or Hispanic.  The RBI program was precisely designed to help children and neighborhoods in this situation. Domino stated, “We feel this facility will allow the children of the Olivets, Police Athletic League, the Sixth Ward and Reading School District to play in a first class facility right in their back yards” (Reading Phillies 2005).

 

The opening of Gordon Hoodak Stadium will begin an era in the Lauer’s Park neighborhood, where young athletes will be equipped with first-class baseball facilities and equipment, along with parental and community support.  Maybe along the way some of those athletes who began their careers at Gordon Hoodak Stadium will sign a baseball contract, or obtain a baseball or softball college scholarship, or get a job in baseball as a result of what they learned from the education program run by the Reading Phillies.  In any event, it opens great possibilities for the kids and the community.

 

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@ 2018 Reading Branch #2289 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People