The other night at Fairfield Park in Fairborn, over two dozen players were taken back in time:
First to when they were kids.
Then back to the 1920s, the 1930s and the early ’40s.
After the evening’s regular games, Michael Carter – the former high school basketball coach and now the Senior Advisor to the President and Chief Diversity Officer at Sinclair Community College – set out a couple of large duffel bags filled with his collection of Negro League jerseys.
For four seasons from 2016 to 2019, he allowed Sinclair baseball players to wear them, making the Tartan Pride the first college team to wear Negro League jerseys in a game.
Although this is the centennial celebration year of the Negro Leagues, Sinclair has cancelled its sports programs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why Carter looked to the senior league players with whom he plays.
“I don’t know if you saw us, but we went through the boxes like we were a bunch of little kids,” said Frank Johnson, a 71-year-old retired government worker from Clayton who had snagged a Cincinnati Tigers jersey while, nearby, Willie “Bubba” Steagalt reached for the Homestead Grays and Derek Allen opted for the Chattanooga Choo Choos.
The real time travel came once the players donned their shirts and walked through the fading light onto the field for a team photo before each then took a turn at the plate wearing threads like those once worn by legends like Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell.
“Walking out there all wearing different jerseys, it almost felt like we were in a movie,” said Allen, chairperson and professor of the Culinary Arts and Hospitality program at Sinclair. “It was like we were in slow motion, like in the movie Field of Dreams.”
“It made my eyes water,’ said Randy Janicki, a former heavy equipment operator from Hawaii who wore a Harlem jersey. “To be part of honoring guys like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and all the Negro League greats I heard of, I thought ‘How cool is this?’”
“It was a real honor to wear one of these jerseys,” said 71-year-old Dave Woolf, the former assistant police chief from Kettering who has played softball for 50 years. “The only other time I’ve had a similar feeling was several years ago when we played against a Wounded Warriors team at Wright State.”
In 1920, Rube Foster brought representatives from eight teams – including the Dayton Marcos – to the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City to form the Negro National League.
The Marcos played their first Negro League game against the Chicago Giants on June 12th at Westwood Field on Western Avenue (now James H, McGee Blvd.) That was almost four months before the better known Dayton Triangles played their first NFL game at Triangle Park.
It’s the 100-year celebration of the Triangles as well this year and even in these restrictive times of COVID-19, it has come with more fanfare.
A local group is planning a Triangles celebration on Oct. 3 and this summer the NFL completed work on a new football field here it donated to the city.
There’s a plaque commemorating the team at Triangle Park and at Carillon Park, where the team’s original locker room is being prepared to anchor a permanent sports exhibit, there are myriad Triangle items for sale in the museum store.
The Marcos have a plaque on Dayton’s Walk of Fame in the Wright-Dunbar District.
Carter, though, is one of the few people here who regularly tries to acknowledge the team and, more so, the entire Negro Leagues.
While growing up on Lexington Avenue in Springfield’s East End, he said there was a man who lived two doors down – “Mr. Ballard” – who had played in the Negro Leagues.
A baseball player himself in high school and at Wittenberg University, Carter became fascinated with the pioneers of the all-black league and in later life, he and his older brother Darnell, a Springfield attorney, began collecting Negro League jerseys and visiting places like the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
When he decided to ask his fellow senior leaguers to wear the jerseys, Carter wasn’t sure how they’d respond.
“I was surprised how touched they were,” he said afterward.
Myles “Chillymac” McPherson, who remembers writing reports on Negro League players in junior high and at Xenia High, said: “When I put on that jersey, I kind of felt the history of the league.”
Woolf said the Negro League remembrance resonated a little more with him “considering the current situation going on in our country.”
With protests going on across the nation over racial injustice in society, Negro League history reverberates more today.
As Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, recently told the Los Angeles Times: “This is so much more than just a baseball story. It’s a story of social justice. It’s a story of the Civil Rights movement. And it’s a story of all that adversity stacked against them.”
As much as some people today try to disparage pro athletes for focusing on social injustice, it’s been shown time and again that they can help affect change.
When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, that was a start of the civil rights movement Kendrick noted:
Robinson’s debut came before Brown vs. the Board of Education, Rosa Parks’ bus seat stand and President Truman integrating the Armed Forces. It came when Martin Luther King as still a sophomore at Morehouse College.
And while the integration of baseball signaled the end of the Negro Leagues, it was, Kendrick said, “good for the nation’s soul.”
Marcos formed in 1910
Formed in 1910, the all-black Marcos team was meant to be entertainment for Dahomey Park, the first black-owned and operated amusement park in the U.S.
Early on, the Marcos were the only all-black team playing in the Ohio Indiana League.
Actually, there had been black players in Major League Baseball over a quarter century earlier.
Moses Fleetwood Walker, who was born in Mount Pleasant and played at Oberlin College, is considered the first player to be open about his black heritage when he caught for the Toledo Blue Stockings in the American Association in 1884.
His presence drew racist protests from Chicago White Stockings’ manager Cap Anson and others and soon the white teams came to a “gentleman’s agreement” banning black players from rosters. That gave birth to the Negro Leagues.
Back then blacks were banned from many Dayton restaurants and hotels, but those injustices seemed to fade for nine innings when the Marcos played.
Although they went just 10-18 that first season – and would move to Columbus the following year before returning in 1926 and later becoming a barnstorming team – the Marcos averaged 2,000 fans a game in 1920 and drew over 11,000 when they played the Kansas City Monarchs.
The team was led by player/manager Candy Jim Taylor, who’d go on to win two Negro League World Series with the Homestead Grays and become the winningest manager in league history.
The most famous player though was W.G. Sloan, the left-handed pitcher who became a hero during the Dayton Flood of 1913.
In March of that year, nonstop rains caused the Great Miami River to rise two feet per hour. Several levies crumpled and the water that surged into downtown Dayton was more than the amount that roars over Niagara Falls in a month.
Downtown Dayton was covered in 20 feet of water. Over 20,000 homes were damaged, 65,000 people were displaced and 360 people were killed.
It remains the worst natural disaster in Ohio history and produced an apocalyptical scene. Gas lines exploded, fires consumed city blocks and people huddled on roof tops, clung to tree limbs or were swept helplessly through the surging waters.
Sloan used a revolver to commandeer a flat-bottom boat from an uncooperative factory owner and for 68 hours straight he rowed around the city saving people.
It’s estimated he carried 317 people to safety, yet all that was forgotten when he died in poor straights in 1931 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Section 123 at the back of Woodland Cemetery.
Some 81 years later – in 2012 – I wrote a story about his plight and within a year a Good Samaritan who wished to remain anonymous bought him a headstone engraved with:
William G. Sloan
Southpaw pitcher for the Dayton Marcos
Hero of the 1913 Great Dayton Flood
Saving over 300 souls
The most celebrated former Marco was Ray Brown. who ended up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown…and for 43 years in an unmarked grave in Dayton’s Greencastle Cemetery.
He’d come to Wilberforce University from Alger, but within a year was working at a Dayton foundry. He signed with the Marcos and later became a star of the Homestead Grays. In his heyday he was considered the best pitcher in the Negro League and led the Grays to eight pennants in nine years.
Also a power hitter, he’s in the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame and also starred in Mexico, Canada and Venezuela.
While there’s often the misnomer that Negro League baseball was not on a caliber of the Major Leagues back then, author Todd Peterson determined black teams went 315-280-20 against Major League teams from 1900-1948.
After Robinson broke the color barrier, he was Rookie of the Year that first season and the league’s MVP two years later. From 1949-1959, nine of 11 MVPs of the National League were former Negro League players.
In the 1940s in Puerto Rico, Brown threw a no-hitter against the New York Yankees.
In later years he worked at the Sunshine Biscuit company in Dayton and when he died in 1965, his death notice consisted of one line in the Dayton Daily News. His baseball was not mentioned.
When he was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2006, I wrote a story about his unmarked and overgrown grave.
A grassroots community effort – spearheaded by Steve Dankoff, now a Montgomery County Common Pleas judge – raised enough money to buy a black granite grave marker and fund a West Dayton Little League team in Brown’s name.
‘I’m always ready’
Back in 2000, I sat with the ever-colorful, 91-year-old Curtis “Bingo” Lloyd, our last known living Negro Leaguer, in his West Dayton home.
On this day he wore a pink cap that read “Can’t Jump, Can’t Putt” and a Kansas City Monarchs t-shirt.
He began telling me about the day when – as a brash kid getting a tryout with the Monarchs – he waved Cool Papa Bell away from a fly ball. To better illustrate, he had me pull him up out of the chair.
He steadied himself on his cane and then made his way over to his old ball glove with the pillowy fingers and a small patch of leather that covered his hand. He put it on, patted in the pocket and suddenly he was working his way to that fly ball between he and Bell more than a half century earlier
As Satchel Paige once said of Cool Papa: “He so fast he can turn out the light and jump in bed ’fore the room get dark.”
On that day, Bingo laid claim to the fly ball, only to get to the dugout where he was chewed out by the manager: “Don’t you ever call Cool Papa off the ball! Who you think you are?”
Credit: Jim Witmer
Credit: Jim Witmer
Bingo didn’t make the Monarchs, but he travelled the Midwest with the Marcos in the 1940s. He died in February of 2009, just two months shy of 100.
Some years before that the Dayton Dragons had him throw out the first pitch. I remember we were in the tunnel beforehand and I asked him: “You ready?”
“I’m like cold potato salad,” he snapped. “I’m always ready!”
This year’s planned centennial celebration – sponsored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball – was mostly postponed until 2021 by COVID-19.
MLB and the Players Association did donate $1 million to the museum and earlier this month teams wore Negro League patches on their uniforms and a Tipping Your Cap campaign featured former U.S. presidents and other luminaries trumpeted the leagues in a video.
But one special moment celebrated the Negro Leagues the other night in Fairborn.
After the hitting exhibitions, McPherson held a yellow softball he hoped to get his fellow players to autograph. But while the others were off taking photos, he was approached by another player who wanted him to try out a new bat.
Even though he’s just 5-foot-7, McPherson is known as a home run hitter.
“A lot of people say I got my power from my Aunt Sonja,” he said. “She could really hit it back in the day. She and my mom (Eleanor) played for a funeral home in Xenia.”
As McPherson stepped up to the plate, the other guy stood out near the pitching rubber in need of a ball.
McPherson tossed him the one he had planned to get signed.
When the guy pitched it to him, McPherson – with “Ethiopian Clowns” across his chest – took a mighty swing that launched the souvenir through the gloaming, well over the outfield fence and into a stand of distant trees.
It became the best Negro Leagues salute of the night.
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