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For one shining season in 1909, the eyes of baseball were on St. Paul's black baseball team

1907 St. Paul Colored Gophers

1907 St. Paul Colored Gophers

In the spring of 1907, Phil Reid trekked to Hot Springs, Arkansas, drawn by the supposedly curative waters that made it a vacation paradise for people of means.

"Daddy" Reid, as he was known, was the definition of a self-made man. He was born in 1854 in Frankfort, Kentucky, quite possibly into slavery. He gradually made his way north, working as a hotel waiter, bartender, insurance agent, and entertainer.

By the time he headed south that spring, he'd become one of St. Paul's most prominent black businessmen. A saloon owner and Democratic Party operative, he had a rare wealth that allowed him to tour Europe and flee the melting snow for the resort lands of Arkansas.

But Reid had an ulterior purpose in mind. On his way, he detoured to Nashville to recruit "the best colored ball players that money can secure," according to the Duluth News Tribune.

His creation would be known as the St. Paul Colored Gophers. And his ambition was simple, wrote the Nashville Globe: "to outclass all of the white semi-professionals of that section of the country."

Baseball by color

From this country's cloudy nascence before the Civil War, nearly every ethnicity arriving here has picked up a ball and bat. The game, however, was rarely egalitarian. Whites and blacks occasionally played each other—or in a few notable cases, stood shoulder to shoulder on the same team—in the decades after the war.

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Yet by the 1880s, white fear invoked a strict color line as the sport morphed from a "gentleman's game" into serious business.

Baseball found itself on parallel tracks divided by black and white. The only minorities allowed to occasionally break these barriers were Native Americans, who were sometimes deemed more acceptable—and only if they were exceptionally good.

African-American teams were relegated to barnstorming squads. They were allowed to play exhibitions against whites, but never permitted to join leagues.

Their game was known as "blackball," and most teams operated entirely on their own. They would play one afternoon before thousands of fans, then hustle by car (or, if they were lucky, train) through the night to some small burg a hundred miles away, where they scrimmaged the next day against a white sandlot team in front of 100 people, most of whom turned out to see the "colored curiosities," as they were often called.

Then it was off again to another city in search of a new payday.

"Life in black baseball was not different than life in the Twin Cities with its everyday challenges of segregation, bias, and the difficulties placed on all African Americans," says Frank White, a Woodbury historian. "The challenges were at work every day—places to eat, the menial jobs that African Americans were allowed to hold. There were covenants of where African Americans were allowed to live.

"It was the way things were," White adds. "Who were you going to complain to? You knew your place."

While Minnesota's racial climate was more welcoming than below the Mason-Dixon line, the benefits were more subtle than luxurious.

In his book African Americans in Minnesota, David Vassar Taylor explains that, in some ways, black residents of the Twin Cities weren't very different from their white counterparts. By the early 1900s, the Land of 10,000 Lakes was still largely uncharted, wild territory, considered the easternmost outpost of the great northwest. The new flocks arriving had one thing in common: They were fleeing someplace worse.

"In general, black migrants probably moved to Minnesota for much the same economic reasons European immigrants did: jobs and opportunities in urban areas and an abundance of land to homestead," Taylor writes.

The Irish, Swedes, Germans, and Norwegians — many of them immigrants themselves — occupied the better neighborhoods. African Americans were largely restricted to places like the Rondo neighborhood in central St. Paul, or forced into Jewish enclaves.

Even three decades later, St. Paul officials would still be showing brazen hostility to integration.

Says White: "One of the comments I really recall in the '30s in my research from a St. Paul Council member seeking re-election was, 'The Negro needs to know his place and his place is not in your place of business!'"

While most blacks worked as domestics, porters, and waiters, Phil Reid held a unique affluence.

Todd Peterson, author of Early Black Baseball in Minnesota, describes Reid as "a nearly perfectly rotund black man replete with a handle bar mustache and bow tie.... Photographs of Reid from this time reveal a confident and heavyset man, frequently wearing a three-piece suit and bowler hat. This 'prince of good fellows' was considered to be 'one of the most influential and wealthy Negroes of the northwest' and was renowned for being of a cheerful disposition, always willing to do an act of kindness."

Reid counted heavyweight champ Jack Johnson among his friends, and was known for his fondness of gambling, cigars, drink, and fine clothes. By the early 1900s, Reid was deeply involved in politics as president of the Fourth Ward Afro-American Democratic Club.

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He would go on to open an insurance company and a liquor and cigar store on Kellogg Street. Reid also operated moonlit steam boat excursions featuring music and "refreshments of all kinds in abundance."

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The launching of a power 

It would take a certain amount of chutzpah for Reid to form a blackball team in 1907. The constant travel meant extraordinary train and hotel bills. His bet was that curious white fans would pay to see "darkies" from the big city play their hometown teams.

There wasn't much precedent. Other black teams in Minnesota had collapsed. During the 1907 and 1908 seasons, the St. Paul Colored Gophers were but a moderate success, crisscrossing the state to play white clubs and building a rivalry with the Twin Cities' other black team, the Minneapolis Keystones.

The Gophers quickly overtook them in terms of prominence and power. But St. Paul's working-class residents rarely had the money to buy enough tickets to schedule many home games.

"The African Americans of St. Paul were justifiably proud of their team," writes Peterson, "but they were too few in number and too light in the pocketbook to warrant more than a handful of home games each year. As a result, the Gophers were compelled to barnstorm in order to make their money."

And in order to earn, the Gophers had to win.

"One of the benefits of barnstorming was the games were usually played with a 60-40 percent split of the gate, the winner getting 60 percent and loser 40 percent," says White. "The significance of winning became extremely important, especially if you were the traveling team incurring the expenses."

George "Rat" Johnson, catcher for the St. Paul Gophers, 1909

George "Rat" Johnson, catcher for the St. Paul Gophers, 1909

The Gophers' first two seasons were spent gathering players. By 1909, they would reach their zenith.

"Darkies" come to town

Reid was determined to create the ultimate blackball team, one that could beat any squad, black or white, in the country. He spared no expense, traveling throughout the Midwest and South to sign the best talent he could find, unabashedly poaching the biggest stars of other black teams.

By 1909, the Colored Gophers were dotted with vibrant personalities. Catcher Chappie Johnson was one of the most sought-after stars in turn-of-the-century blackball, receiving a then-exorbitant three-figure contract. Pitcher Johnny "Steel Arm" Taylor was a precursor to Satchel Paige.

Then there was Bobby Marshall, the Bo Jackson of his era. He broke color barriers and records on the University of Minnesota football team, where he would earn a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. A true renaissance man, he would become one of the first black players in the NFL, while also running track, boxing, wrestling, and playing hockey—and becoming a successful lawyer in his spare time.

Captain Felix Wallace held the role akin to a manager in those days. He "had no equal during the first two decades of the century at shortstop or second base," writes Peterson. "Possessing tremendous range, he was very fleet of foot, a clever base runner, and a steady, clutch hitter to boot."

Even before the season started, the Gophers were getting ink. Newspapers as far flung as Little Falls, Eau Claire, and Aberdeen were heralding their impending arrival.

But it took the Colored Gophers a while to become a cohesive juggernaut. The season opened in early May, when they lost a two-game sweep to LaCrosse before taking an embarrassing 11-2 trashing from Hibbing.

Phil "Daddy" Reid sought to outclass the white teams

Phil "Daddy" Reid sought to outclass the white teams

Theirs was a grueling, unglamorous schedule, featuring towns like Groton, South Dakota, and Toddsville, North Dakota, not to mention Eveleth, Bessemer, and Hayward. But they were also becoming an attraction.

A Gophers game in Hibbing was the centerpiece of the city's Independence Day celebration, which featured parades, dancing, and fireworks. But the team's hosts weren't always polite. Players were frequently described in hometown papers as "darkies" and "pickaninnies," accompanied by occasional drawings in the Sambo mold.

A newspaper covering a game in Minot, North Dakota, referred to the Gophers as "coons" and described their confidence and flair as "arrogant."

"On Sunday afternoon a crowd of fully 1,500 gathered at the grounds to see the game," read the story. "The weather was miserably hot and the players almost dropped in their tracks. It was good weather for the coons, who frolicked like kittens during the early part of the game, when they again concluded that they had a walkaway."

The attitude of many white Midwesterners was embodied by the Grand Forks Daily Herald, which uncorked this gem:

"It must not be forgotten... that looking after the moral, material and spiritual welfare of the alien races is the white man's burden and not the white woman's."

But by all appearances, the Gophers weren't deterred. And the black press was practically gushing. Reid and co-owner Irving Williams "deserve great credit for the good they have done our race in promoting and financing this great team throughout the Northwest in the three seasons past, opening and making a field for our colored players and teams in a vast territory practically unknown to Negro baseball fandom prior to 1907," wrote the Indianapolis Freeman.

"The brilliant and superb play of this clever team, their gentlemanly conduct on and off the field during the period above mentioned, has won naught but words of praise and admiration from the press and public throughout the entire Northwest."

For much of the spring and summer, the St. Paul Colored Gophers barnstormed the upper Midwest, accumulating a record of 28-5-1. That left them on a collision course with the Goliaths of Chicago, the Leland Giants, considered the preeminent blackball team of the west.

They would play for the "World Colored Championship."

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The triumph of St. Paul

The St. Paul Appeal put it best on July 10, 1909: "Interest is at a fever heat over the coming championship series between the St. Paul Gophers and the Leland Giants of Chicago. The local team this season is a most classy lot, being especially strong in batting.... The Gophers will have the entire fandom of the Northwest to cheer them on."

How exactly the Gophers arrived in a mythical "world colored championship" is unclear. Because there were no blackball leagues, no playoffs, and certainly no governing body, the fact that the Giants were reigning champs was something of an invention.

That's not to say the Leland Giants—named for owner Frank Leland—wouldn't have been a prime contender. Led by one of the best rotations in African-American history, and anchored by a powerful top-to-bottom lineup, they were likely the best black team in the country. Due to the expense of traveling back and forth, the entire five-game series would take place in St. Paul.

The Gophers opened with aplomb, winning 10-9 with a Bobby Marshall blast over the right-field fence in the 11th inning.

But the Giants roared back in game two, when southpaw Charles Dougherty handcuffed the Gophers in an 8-1 scalding.

Matters took on a more sour note in game three, when Steel Arm Taylor blew a shutout in the 9th. The Gophers lost 5-1.

But St. Paul came out swinging in the fourth contest, winning in a 4-3 triumph to even the series at two apiece.

That set up a winner-take-all showdown for the national title. The Gophers would respond in glorious fashion.

Dougherty, the Giants' ace, threw a no-hitter through the first seven innings. Taylor, meanwhile, allowed just one run on eight scattered hits. But the Gophers would mount a late-inning flurry, sending the Giants to defeat, 3-1.

The Gophers were the world champs.

Blackball cries foul 

It was only natural that a handful of powers from the East—especially the Philadelphia Giants and the Brooklyn Royal Giants—squawked of being unfairly shut out of any world championship. The Leland Giants also put up a fuss, hinting that they lost because the series was played in St. Paul.

So the Chicago franchise threw $5,000 on the table for a true championship, played on neutral diamonds with unbiased umpires. Reid didn't bite. He already owned a title. There was nothing to gain from a repeat performance.

"One of the proudest baseball managers and owners in the world today is Phil Reid of St. Paul," the Freeman blared. "He wears a smile on his face that won't come off.... Fans, both white and colored, were well pleased."

The series had illuminated blackball beyond the racial curtain, attracting a significant number of white fans—though roped off in segregated seating, of course.

When the Gophers returned to the barnstorming trail, a new respect was evident. A newspaper in Oelwein, Iowa, described them as "well up in line with the clubs whose skins are lighter" and "a team worthy of their steel or muscle and skill."

The decline of Daddy

The championship team wouldn't last. Club hopping was common at the time, as players jumped from franchise to franchise in search of bigger paychecks. The Gophers stars began to defect.

At the same time, the novelty of blackball was losing its luster. The Minneapolis Keystones began touring the same white towns. "Basically, it was overkill," says Steven Hoffbeck, author of Swinging for the Fences: Black Baseball in Minnesota. "The key was that the novelty factor wore thin."

But nothing contributed to the team's collapse more than Reid. For reasons unclear, he suddenly lost interest in the Gophers, and had to be convinced to field a team in 1910. Only two years later, he was dead.

The cause was advancing gastritis. Hundreds of people filled T.H. Lyles's funeral home to view his body. The procession included a brass band and 25 carriages. Pilgrim Baptist church was filled to capacity, with crowds gathering outside.

Reid's body was barely cold when alleged relatives began crawling from the carpets to claim the $15,000 Daddy left behind.

Chief among them was Belle Davis, a supposed actress who claimed to be Reid's common-law wife. Reid's burial was held up until Davis could return from Europe, where she was traveling and acting at the time of his death.

So began a free-for-all for Daddy's bucks. An alleged son, an alleged daughter, and two alleged cousins joined the fight.

The legal wrangling dragged on for a year, when Davis, perhaps reading the writing on the wall for her tenuous claim, abandoned the fight. Theatrical engagements abroad would not permit further sacrifice of her time, she said.

The matter didn't go to trial until 1915 — more than two years after Reid's death — when the court handed the estate to his grandnephew, Shelly Williams, an inmate at an Arkansas penitentiary.

By that time, the Colored Gophers were no more.

Wrote Peterson: "Although none of the Gophers are enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a 1909 photograph of the team is part of the permanent collection at Cooperstown. The image was taken in May of that year after they had just trounced the Hibbing Colts, 17-2, and reveals a weary bunch of barnstormers along with a justifiably proud Phil Reid. Although most of the St. Paul Gophers' accomplishments have been forgotten, every pitch they threw and every run they scored brought clarity to America's social landscape, one game at a time."