Tuesday, September 23, 2014

178. Charles "Square Deal" Cromwell: Blackball Umpire

I've said it before many times, but I'll say it again: one of the best benefits about writing/illustrating The Infinite Baseball Card Set is all the baseball historians, writers and artists I've met. I've asked a few to be a "Guest Author" on here and this week I'm pleased to have Bernard McKenna grace this site with a story. I became acquainted with Bernard due to our mutual interest in Baltimore Negro League history. I've always felt that with all the rich history in that city it has been sorely overlooked when it came to good solid books on the subject. The Black Sox and Elite Giants have been mentioned many times in chapters in books on general Baltimore baseball history, and the Black Sox in particular would make a great book subject. Cue Bernard McKenna. You may have already heard of him as he made some noise a few years ago when he discovered the only aerial photograph of Maryland Baseball Park where the Black Sox played. Up until McKenna's discovery, very few knew what the park looked like or was even located for that matter. Now baseball historians can gauge the dimensions and layout of the part which in turn helps put the feats of the Negro League greats in perspective. 
So, when I asked McKenna if he'd like to contribute to The Infinite Baseball Card Set he readily agreed, contributing yet another gem of Blackball research: a short history of a Negro League umpire! I hope you enjoy this extremely rare look into a little-known aspect of pre-war black baseball...

Charles Cromwell had a decision to make, and it wasn’t an easy one.  Rube Foster wanted him to come to Chicago and umpire games for the Negro National League (NNL).1  It was a tempting offer.  Foster had founded the NNL in 1920 and, in part, through sheer force of will, had carved out a successful black-baseball organization, which included the major cities in the Mid-West: Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis among others.  By 1923, at the time of Foster’s offer, there was talk of cooperation between the NNL and the newly formed Eastern Colored League (ECL), which included teams from Baltimore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York.

Foster wanted to hire, in the language of the day, “race men,” African American professionals, to serve as umpires but insisted on excellence.  He regretted that there were not more qualified African Americans who could serve as umpires and canvassed the country to find those who were.2  Foster only wanted the best for the league.  He had already lured Billy Donaldson from the Pacific Coast League, where he had established a reputation as one of the best umpires in California, gaining the respect of ballplayers both white and black.
3  If Cromwell went to NNL, he would be at the top of the profession.

On the other hand, he had been with the Baltimore Black Sox since 1917, around the time that Charlie Spedden brought the club and moved them into the Westport Baseball Grounds.
4  Spedden offered to match Foster’s offer,5 so money wasn’t a factor.  If he had given thought to job security, the choice was harder than it might seem today, in hindsight.  At the time, Baltimore was a model franchise, with an ownership fully committed not only to its on-field success but also to improving playing conditions for its players and working conditions for its employees.6  Charles Spedden had just left his job with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, so he too was invested in the team’s long-term well-being.  The Black Sox had also recently (1921) built a new home, the Maryland Baseball Park, and had made major upgrades for the past two seasons, making it the “most complete colored baseball park in the country”7    He had other ties to the community as well.  He was a champion bowler, and the Afro American had asked him to write a regular column on the game.8
Add to this, Spedden had hired another “race man” to umpire, luring Henry “Spike” Spencer north from Washington, DC.
9  If Cromwell stayed in Baltimore, he too would be part of an elite umpiring crew.  Such a pairing would place him and Baltimore at the top of the profession.  Further, he wouldn’t have to uproot his family, and it could not have escaped his attention that he would then become a role model for and leading member of Baltimore’s African American community.  He chose to stay with the Black Sox.

There must have been times over the next few years that he regretted his decision.  In 1925 the ECL took the job of hiring umpires away from the teams, putting Cromwell out of work for that season.  A white sportswriter from Philadelphia made the assignments and did not favor “colored” umpires.
10  The league suspended that practice the following year, and Spedden brought Cromwell back in 1926.11  However, Spedden was forced to resign from the Black Sox in 1927, and George Rossiter, who had been Spedden’s partner, took control of the team’s business operations.  Rossiter chose not to employ African Americans as umpires, firing both Spencer and Cromwell shortly after Spedden left the team.  Rossiter  “insist[ed] on the use of white umpires” until “Negro umpires . . . prove competent.”12   He would eventually hire Cromwell back, but conditions had changed.  The ballpark, which had been an impressive facility, was allowed to deteriorate,13 even as the Black Sox became one of the best teams in the nation, winning the 1929 championship.  The Depression further exposed the club’s weakened financial position, and the Black Sox would cease to exist as a franchise in the early 1930s.  By that time, Cromwell had moved on.

In 1932, he would be named Lead Umpire in the Southern Colored Athletic Association.
14   Later that decade, he would return to the majors, umpiring games for the Baltimore Elite Giants.  His name appears in box scores and, occasionally, surfaces because of a controversial call.15  However, those times are rare, which bodes well for an umpire.  He did not infuse his personality into the game, preferring instead a quiet yet rigorous professionalism.  In 1941, his doctors strongly advised that he take a break from the game, but he returned a year later.16 His name last appears in a box score in 1947.17  His career spanned four decades and at least thirty-one years.  He was reported to be “one of the ‘finest’ umpires in the East.”18 He also gave back to the community, enlisting in the army during the First World War.  He also rushed into a burning building to save a woman’s life.19

If he had taken Foster up on his offer, Charles Cromwell would have likely served with distinction, ranking with Billy Donaldson and Bert Gholston as the best umpires in the NNL.  Instead, he chose to stay in Baltimore.  As a consequence, his career was twice interrupted because of racism.   He persisted, carving a place for himself in the community and in local baseball.  His years of service, his distinctions, and his work in the community rival those Major League umpires in the Hall of Fame.  Moreover, he worked in a time where a “colored umpire” was often the punch-line of a joke.
20  In this context, it is remarkable we know as much as we do about Cromwell.  For many of the “race men” hired by Rube Foster or who labored in black baseball we will never know their names.  For others, there are a few pictures or the name or partial name in a box score or a rare news story.  It’s worth remembering those we know:  Leon Augustine, Lucian Spaer, Caesar Jamison, William Embry,21 Frank Forbes, Judy Gans, Cooper, Greenwald, Ben Taylor, Peirce, Brown, Craig, and Moe Harris.22  In 1932, Bert Ghoston wrote a column, calling them “The Forgotten Men.”  Indeed, they were and are. 

1 “Black Sox Want Cromwell Here,” Afro American, March 30, 1923, 14.
2 “We Need and can use Colored Umpires,” Afro American, January 13, 1922, A8.
3 Foster gets Umpires,” Afro American, April 13, 1923, 1. 
4 “Bowlers get Ready,” Afro American, September 8, 1922, 8. 
5 “Black Sox Want Cromwell Here,” Ibid. 
6 “Black Sox Club to be Real Ball Team,” Afro American, March 10, 1922, 9
7 “Sox sign Catcher and new Pitchers,” Afro American, February 9, 1923, 11.
8 “Charles Cromwell as a Bowler,” Afro American, February 14, 1925, 6.
“Best in the League,” Afro American, September 11, 1926, 9.
10 “Cromwell to Call ‘em at Sox Park,” Afro American, April3, 1926, 8.
11 Ibid.
12 “Can’t Secure Good Umpires,” Afro American, Aug 10, 1929, 15.
13 Bill Gibson, “The Passing Review,” Afro American, May 4, 1929, 15.
14 “Eagles Still Hold Ace Spot,” Afro American, June 23, 1934, 21.
15 “Player Ejected as Elites Split with Cubans,” Afro American, July 22, 1929, 23.
16 “Charlie Cromwell Quits as Umpire,” Afro American, August 30, 1941, 23.
17 “Elite Giants Lose Game,” Baltimore Sun, June 4, 1947, 15.
18 “Cromwell to Call ‘em at Sox Park,” 8.
19 “Both Heroes,” Afro American, April 30, 1927, 20.
20 “A New baseball Ruling,” Baltimore Sun, August 8, 1911, 6.
21 “Rube Foster Signs 7 Colored ‘Umps,’” Afro American, April 27, 1923, 14.
22 “Ghoston calls them the Forgotten Men,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 17, 1932, 14.

Bernard McKenna was born and raised in Baltimore City, near Memorial Stadium.  He currently works as an English professor at the University of Delaware.  Much to the delight of his wife and children, he's starting to look for the old Baltimore Black Sox, recently discovering images of their ballparks.

Friday, September 5, 2014

177. "El Toro" Cepeda: The Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico

This whole season I have been completely immersed in the history of baseball, so much so that I have not been able to attend a single ballgame. I live within crowd-hearing distance of the Cincinnati Reds stadium and 15 miles from a really fun unaffiliated minor league team, yet I've been so busy I haven't had time to sit in the stands and enjoy the game I have written and illustrated all year. In a way, that isn't a bad thing. The new replay rules have really dampened my enjoyment of the game. Take last night for example: my wife is a die-hard Angels fan, and watches every game. In the 9th inning there was a close pick-off play and the dopey umpires stood around waiting 5 minutes for some clown in New York City to make a call that should have been handled right on the field in Minnesota. Five Minutes. Baseball's biggest drawback is that some see the game as too slow. How does this help? I don't know. I just stuck my nose back into another book on baseball history and let my mind find the safe haven of a simpler game.

I find myself doing that more and more recently, retreating inside my mind and finding solace in baseball history. Every morning I read the papers and see how things are going bad all over: Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, China... baseball, as always, gives me a brief reprieve from all the chaos of the modern world. It wasn't until sometime in July that it all hit home for me. I had downloaded the third game of the 1936 World Series: New York Giants vs. New York Yankees. I don't particularly care for either team and of course I know how the series ended, but I decided to listen to the whole game for "atmosphere" while I worked on a drawing of Jake Powell for my book, a member of the Yanks that year. I was struck by the energy of the broadcast - this was the World Series - the most important sporting event in America and the broadcasters made you hear that in their voices. As the innings ticked by I slowly realized that when that game was played millions of Americans were listening in, many in the game the peace and solace I do decades later. The fall of 1936 found the world falling apart. Spain was torn apart by civil war and the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy used the conflict to test out their ideology and military hardware in a precursor to WWII. The United States had sank back into depression and millions were out of work, many for 5 years or more. Japan was being taken over by a military who within a year would throw Asia into a war that would last a decade. Yet, on the afternoon of October 3rd, 1936 virtually every ear in the nation was glued to their radio to hear Tom Manning, Ty Tyson and Red Barber call the third game of the World Series. With what was happening in the world, their urgent and enthusiastic calls and the very audible roar of the crowd took on a whole new meaning.

Baseball, then as now, has always been a great comfort and a pleasant though brief distraction from the world around us. The New York Mets are in town this weekend playing the Reds. I think I will go. I need to go.

Now remembered as the father of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, back in the 1930’s Pedro Cepeda was Puerto Rico’s greatest ballplayer. Called “El Toro” for his build as well as his combativeness on the field, Cepeda refused offers to play in the Negro League due to his concerns over how Blacks were treated in the United States.

Cepeda’s talent is evident in his being a member of the 1937 Cuidad Trujillo Los Dragones team. The Dragonnes brought together the greatest talent outside the Major Leagues including future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. When the Puerto Rican Winter League was formed in 1938, Cepeda played on the Guayama Brujos (Witches) with Paige and won the batting championship the first two seasons the league operated. In subsequent years Cepeda consistently beat Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella, Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin in batting.

While many ball players have been compared to Ruth for their talent on a ball field, Cepeda truly earned his title of “The Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico” by matching Ruth in the hard-living and hard-drinking category as well. The Bull lived just long enough to see his son sign a contract to play pro ball before his excesses and malaria caught up with him. Orlando used his $500 signing bonus to pay his father’s funeral expenses. Although his father never got the chance to see his son play ball, 45 years later when Orlando was inducted in the Hall of Fame, his son was pleased to see his father was already there in a team picture of the 1937 Cuidad Trujillo Los Dragones.