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Black baseball greats

From Arkansas to Montana.

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The Kansas City Royals are atop the baseball world after winning their first World Series in 30 years. They carry on a style and tradition that tracks back to the all-black Kansas City Monarchs of the 1920s through 1960s. The old Monarchs and these Royals eschewed heavy home run hitting for aggressive base stealing.

For decades, Kansas City was at the center of a segregated black baseball world, stretching thousands of miles, from the Midwest through the South out to the West Coast and as far north as the Plains states. That's how a group of Texans who called themselves "Black Spiders" ended up in northern Iowa during the Great Depression, and it helps explain why a pipeline of talent formed between Arkadelphia and, of all places, Butte, Mont.

This Rocky Mountain boomtown, which in 1920 had a metro area population on par with Little Rock's, had attracted hordes of copper, gold and silver miners from all over the U.S. and places like Mexico, China and Syria. Some, like baseball lover Frank Yamer, came to make the guys' lives just a little less rough. Yamer owned an African-American nightclub that sponsored a local all-black baseball team. They called themselves the Butte Colored Giants, played within all-white leagues and, thanks to a connection to Southwest Arkansas, usually won.

The trickle started in the late 1910s with the Walkers — three Arkadelphia brothers — and their brother-in-law, Girlie Fenter. It escalated with another Arkadelphian, "Stack" Spearman and two local league championships, and by the time the mid-1930s rolled around there was a full-fledged flood.

At least 16 Arkadelphians bounded into a car at one point or another to motor the more than 1,700 miles to Butte to play for the Colored Giants, according to research by Arkansas baseball historian Caleb Hardwick. Three Spearman brothers made the trek. Their family was an extraordinarily athletic one, producing six brothers who played pro baseball at various levels.

It's uncertain what kind of day jobs these Arkansans had — they likely worked in the service industry, Hardwick says — but on the field they were often the main attractions. Especially after another city league championship and entry into the eight-team Montana State League as the only black squad.

Most barnstorming black teams of this era had more talent than the local teams they played, so almost all black teams who played against white teams used comedy as insurance against racial confrontation. "Teams were ordered not to win by too much, and ebullient pre-game entertainments were frequent," Donn Rogosin wrote in "Invisible Men: Life in Baseball's Negro Leagues." These could take several forms, including "shadow ball" in which players tossed, fielded, pitched and hit an imaginary baseball to each other.

It appears the Colored Giants were no exception here. One 1935 report in the newspaper Montanomal says the Giants are "not only expert ball players but offer comedy attractions too." While Colored Giants' membership in an all-white league was a rare achievement regardless of region of the country, traveling black teams did often play white teams in the Midwest and West.

While these arrangements weren't often recorded in Jim Crow-era Arkansas, a writer for the African-American Indianapolis Recorder does note an unspecified "colored Arkansas team" played 36 games across Northeast Arkansas in the summer of 1932. Opponents included "white teams of Piggott, Proctor, Holiday, Monette and Jonesboro. The team is lavish in its praise of the treatmetn [sic] given it in these communities, since it is to be remembered that not a Negro lives in one of these communities except Jonesboro."

After the controversial ending of a pivotal late-season game in 1936, the Colored Giants withdrew from the state league and played much of the late 1930s as an independent squad. The end of the run came in 1940. Many of the former players scattered to the winds, a few stayed in Butte, a few returned home.

One of those Arkansans, Pine Bluff native Arthur Ellis, wound up in El Dorado and there managed his own baseball squad called the Black Lions. It's practically certain he taught his players what he'd learned in Montana about entertaining a crowd. One particularly apt pupil, Reese "Goose" Tatum, ended up taking those lessons to a level never seen before or since. In the mid-20th century, Tatum became one of the world's most famous athletes as the headliner for the Harlem Globetrotters.

To listen to a radio broadcast version of this story, go to kuar.org.

Journalist Evin Demirel is starting an oral history project focusing on Arkansan minorities in sports. Go to BestOfArkansasSports.com for more.

The column is sponsored by the New Design School, offering certificate-granting seminars and workshops in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and web design in downtown Fayetteville. Now enrolling for the spring term beginning Jan. 11. NewDesignSchool.org.

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