Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 31, 2009

The Pride of Baltimore

Before the Orioles and Jackie Robinson joined the majors, the Baltimore Elite Giants, with their passel of future stars, were among the elite of the Negro League.

Tom Flynn

The Baltimore Elite Giants, or Elites (pronounced EE-lights), were a long-time fixture on the Negro League landscape, yet for decades they remained in the shadow of their better-known neighbors, the Homestead Grays. The Grays at different times called both Pittsburgh and Washington, DC, home, but regardless of their location, they were usually in first place. With a few notable exceptions, the Elites were left outside looking in.

Yet the Elites' experience truly represented the changes in the game. They were southern transplants from a Jim Crow South, originating first in Nashville. Owner Tom Wilson built his own namesake ballpark in Nashville in the early 1920s, one of the first African-American-owned parks in the country. It effectively broke the stranglehold that white booking agents had on the venues that the Elites could play in. Many Negro League teams' entire histories were plagued by the conflicting interests of booking agents scheduling their games in shared facilities.

Bob Luke. Photo by Judith Wentworth.
"At Elites games, Baltimore blacks were in an environment that gave them a maximum amount of personal freedom."

Bob Luke. Photo by Judith Wentworth.

Gradually the Elites made their way north to a city still rife with segregation. They arrived in Baltimore in 1938, and their time there corresponded with a migration of southern African-Americans to good-paying jobs in industrial cities in the North.

A new book by Negro League author and historian Bob Luke, The Baltimore Elite Giants: Sport and Society in the Age of Negro League Baseball, captures the Elites and their era, inside and outside the chalked lines of the field. In the following interview, conducted over the phone and edited for clarity, Luke, age 67, talked to Gelf about the team's colorful playboy owner, its provision of a haven for Baltimore's blacks, and its unseemly demise in the midst of a championship series.

Gelf Magazine: The first thing I have to ask you about is the cover. It's a great picture, with the expression of the three ballplayers—"Wild" Bill Wright, Andy "Pullman" Porter, and Sammy T. Hughes—showing a range of emotions from wariness to joy. To me it almost encapsulates the experiences of the Negro League ballplayers.

Bob Luke: It's a great photo. It came from the collection of Barbara Golden, the daughter of Richard Powell, a deceased former executive of the team, and it was one of many from her that I was able to utilize for the book.

Gelf Magazine: Can you talk a little about Richard Powell, and how he figured into the team's history?

Bob Luke: Richard Powell moved to Baltimore when he was about six years old from Silver Spring and had to go to work early to support his family. He worked a whole variety of jobs and met a lot of people throughout the city as a result. He was a fan of the Baltimore Black Sox, the Elites predecessors, and he was very instrumental as an adult in building support for the Elite Giants moving to Baltimore from their home in Washington. He really laid the groundwork for the team's arrival, had a number of the players lodged in private homes, and even had players stay at his house. Through the years he traveled with the Elites and wrote articles about them for the Baltimore Afro-American and other black newspapers. The original Elites owner Tom Wilson died in 1947, and when subsequent owner Vernon Green died in 1949, Richard Powell became vice president. He actually ran the team in 1949, '50, and '51 for Green's widow, Henryene. So he was a major figure.

Gelf Magazine: You mention Tom Wilson. A number of books on the Negro League talk about the owners, Gus Greenlee and Wilson amongst others, and how many of them were numbers runners. Wilson ran numbers down in Nashville amongst his many other business ventures. If you spoke to some of the people of Nashville, what do you think their opinion was of Tom overall? Was he viewed as a mobster or as a businessman? He's a really compelling character.

Bob Luke: The one person whom I spoke to most about Tom Wilson was Clint "Butch" McCord, a former Elite from Nashville. He said that Wilson was just a very highly respected figure in the black community and that people were not at all offended that he was running numbers. He was often viewed as a pillar of the community, a member of a number of civic organizations. He had some involvement in developing a bus route or light-rail route in Nashville in addition to his baseball activities.
I don't know how familiar you might be with what Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley thought of Tom Wilson, for example?

Gelf Magazine: I could see in the book she was scathingly critical of him. As far as Effa was concerned, his ability to run the Negro National League, when serving for a time as its president, was terrible.

Bob Luke: Right. He did nothing to be a strong executive and I gather that the Negro League team owners liked it that way; nobody really wanted a strong league executive.

Gelf Magazine: Right. With the owners booking so many of their barnstorming games outside of league play, a strong central figure who was encroaching on their ability to do so was costing them business.

Bob Luke: And Tom Wilson was very much of a lady's man; he was married four times, always to relatively young women. He had quite a reputation.

Gelf Magazine: Why would you say that Wilson and the Elite Giants were so nomadic before arriving in Baltimore? Was it merely the difficulty of finding a place to make a go of it economically or was it more than that?

Bob Luke: That's what I always thought, that Wilson was looking for a fan base large enough to support the team. He was in Nashville from the early '20s to the early '30s then he went to Columbus, Ohio. One of the reasons he went there was that the other NNL teams found it difficult to travel all the way to Nashville to play, so he was trying to get closer to the East Coast.

Gelf Magazine: And then he moved to Washington, DC, about the same time that the Homestead Grays began to play more in Washington. That may have led to him to consider Baltimore.

Bob Luke: That's right, the Elite Giants were in Washington in 1936 and 1937 and moved to Baltimore in 1938.

Gelf Magazine: Turning to the players, the Elites had some pretty good ones. Joe Black, Junior Gilliam, and Roy Campanella, all future Brooklyn Dodgers. Those are big names from one team. Tell us about them.

Bob Luke: One of the interesting things that I discovered was that Campanella was the only member of the team born north of the Mason-Dixon line when they arrived in Baltimore. The rest of the players were from the South. Campanella was also the youngest player, just 16 when he joined the Elites. And of course he was a super catcher.

Gelf Magazine: And he had Hall of Fame catcher Biz Mackey as a teammate when he got to the Elites.

Bob Luke: Yes, and he really learned the catching trade from Biz Mackey. Biz was his mentor and teacher. Campanella throughout his life always gave Mackey credit for that. Joe Black came to the Elite Giants as a shortstop but George Scales, the former Negro League player who was managing the Giants at the time, thought that Black was too lazy to be a shortstop so he thought he'd try him as a pitcher. Black became a pitcher and obviously became a terrific one. He got his degree from Morgan State in 1950 while playing for the Elite Giants.
The last player, Junior Gilliam, was originally from Nashville.

Gelf Magazine: All three hit on pretty immediate success in the major leagues, and that speaks to the level of play that they'd experienced prior to coming to the majors.

Bob Luke: Black and Gilliam were both National League Rookies of the Year for the Dodgers and Campanella was MVP multiple times and then a Hall of Famer. That is a good testimony to the level of play.

Gelf Magazine: What are your thoughts on Leon Day, a Hall of Famer for that last great Elites team?

Bob Luke: He was a wonderful pitcher; a lot of people would say that he was as good as Satchel Paige. He had this kind of no-windup delivery, and he was relatively small in stature. He wasn't an overpowering presence on the mound. From talking to people who knew him after he retired, he was a very approachable guy; he loved to talk baseball. And of course he was delighted that he finally got into the Hall of Fame. He learned of that on his deathbed.

Gelf Magazine: In 1949, the Dodgers were so good with Jackie Robinson, Campanella, and Don Newcombe. Reading of their feats through the words of Sam Lacy, the great columnist for Baltimore's Afro-American, you could tell Sam was torn; he wanted to support the Dodgers to get African-Americans a real firm toehold in the major leagues, but at the same time the Elites were so good in 1949 and there was loyalty to a black business. It was also tough, I'm sure, in the larger African-American community, deciding which team to be more loyal to.

Bob Luke: It was, a lot of African-American fans had that divided loyalty. Enough went to major-league games over Negro League games that attendance at Negro League contests dropped off dramatically in '47, '48, and '49. At the same time, the defense industries shut down after World War II. That was the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.

Gelf Magazine: Let's talk more about the Elites' 1949 team because they were so good. I know when they were going out to play in the championship of the 1949 National Negro League they tore down Bugle Field, their home field, while the series was still going on. That's pretty telling and pretty dismaying for the players if you consider it. If your field is being torn down while you're in the midst of a championship series, that's a pretty clear indication of what direction the franchise, and the league, are going.

Bob Luke: Immediately after the last game was played, the wreckers moved in and that put the team without a ballpark to play in.

Gelf Magazine: With the team having wound down in the early 1950s, what do you think the Elites place was in Baltimore African-American society, looking back?

Bob Luke: In both the case of the Negro Leagues as a whole and in the case of the Elites, the role that they provided was a haven for African-Americans who could go to the games and be totally at ease in a way that they could not do in segregated American society. At the ballpark, African-Americans could dress however they wanted—and they usually dressed to the nines—picnic, drink, and cheer, and walk around without worry about who they looked at or what they said. They just totally were in an environment that gave them a maximum amount of personal freedom they did not have in the wider world.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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