Thursday, January 7, 2016

210. Joe Gans: Star of the Ring and the Diamond

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 back for his second appearance. 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. 

The last time McKenna was a guest he introduced us to one of the more obscure aspects of Blackball - the umpire. This time he again skirts the obvious and shines some light on the diamond career of one of the early African-American boxing champions...

Joe Gans, the first African-American boxing champion, was a Baltimore guy who, even though he was born in 1874, would fit right in today on the streets near the Broadway Market, in Fells Point, where he was raised. He lived “in a racially mixed community with a tradition of self-sufficiency . . . [and] absorbed a culture that valued grit, determination, and hard work.”1  Gans had an edge to him, even going 42 rounds in a title defense. He inspired Ernest Hemingway and generations of fighters who touch his statue for good luck before fights in Madison Square Garden.2 He knew, first hand, the effects of racial discrimination, and, like many young men growing up in Baltimore, he loved baseball, even, perhaps, more than boxing.  In a city torn by racial violence, baseball fields functioned as one of the few places where blacks and whites had the opportunity to congregate.  

Although they could not help but be aware of the social implications of the games, players and fans were most likely motivated by a love for the sport.  They would have to be.  It was no easy task to follow let alone organize a quality baseball team in such circumstances.  Many did, however, and some established a regional reputation.  In doing so, they would carve a space for the Black Sox, Elite Giants, and other African American athletes both in Baltimore and in the region.  At the turn of the twentieth century, The Baltimore Giants were one such team.  William Tydings managed the club.  He had played for and managed other amateur and semi-pro teams in the city.  William T. Jordan served as the club’s president and, presumably, as its main financial support.  Jordan owned and operated saloons
3 and a billiard parlor4 on East Lee Street.  The Giants’s participation in the “Colored Southern Ball League” set them apart from other African American owned teams in Baltimore.  There is very little information available about the League.  It was apparently a loose organization of baseball teams in Richmond, Portsmouth, Wilmington, Norfolk, Petersburg, Lynchburg, Baltimore and Washington, DC5.   However, it did have some lasting effect in that teams from these cities would continue to play other Baltimore-based teams, including the Black Sox, years after Jordan’s and Tydings’ club folded.  

Those Giants had another legacy, as well.  Joe Gans the first “Colored Boxing Champion,”
6 played for them  when he was not in the ring.  He had managed other clubs, such as the “Dick-de-Doos”7  and the Norfolk Elites8.   Later, he also founded his own team, which was the most influential club of the era.  The team was known as the Middle Section Giants or simply as Joe Gans’ Nine and later, when the name was available, as the Baltimore Giants.

He built upon the regional connections, established by Tydings and Jordan, continuing to play the teams from the old Colored Southern League9 and expanding into the north, with games against clubs in Wilmington, Delaware; Philadelphia; and Chester.10  He also expanded deeper into the south, playing teams from North Carolina11 and Georgia.12  In doing so, Gans put Baltimore on the map for black baseball.  Of course, his celebrity helped.  Fans would come to the games to see the boxing champ.  Up to 600 would take the train from Washington, DC to see him play in Baltimore.13  Not only would they catch a glimpse of Gans, the boxer, they would see Joe Gans, the baseball player.   The sports pages describe his fielding as “clever”14 and “brilliant.”15  At the plate, he was “a terror.”16 

His gamesmanship also garnered attention, delighting baseball fans and frustrating others.  After a loss, he would publicly wager on a re-match, putting up his own money.
17  If he could not persuade other teams to play his Giants, he would call out potential opponents betting $50 or $100 that his team was better.18  He even offered the “entire gate receipts to any club outside of the Philadelphia Giants that defeats him.”19  The team’s performance matched his rhetoric: In 1905, the Washington Post described the “Middle Section Giants of Baltimore” as “the strongest team south of Philadelphia.”20  Gans’ success was short lived, however, as he chose to focus on his boxing career, although his health may have been a factor.21 

He continued to play ball through the 1908 season, although he no longer sponsored a team.  In one of his final games, he pitched a shut-out
22 for the Cuban Giants against the Weldon Athletic Club, the team that would become the Baltimore Black Sox.  Gans died of tuberculosis in 1910. However, his legacy as a boxer and as a ballplayer survived him.  Gans’ work in baseball, in particular, made the later success of the Black Sox possible.  His celebrity, at first, and later his skills as a player, owner, and promoter created a regional reputation for Baltimore baseball in general and for black baseball in the city in particular. His clubs and the other black amateur and semi-pro teams of the period established a foothold for African American sports in the region.  

He is also an ideal figure through which to read race and sports in turn-of-the-century Baltimore.  He was a multi-sport athlete, who both had a talent and, as a typical Baltimore guy, a passion for baseball. In both boxing and baseball, Gans dealt with sometimes conflicting notions of racial superiority.  Gans also had to deal with racism, prejudice, and hatred.  John L. Sullivan, and many other white boxers, “never permitted themselves to fight a colored man.”
23 The Baltimore Sun, in its news pages, saw integrated boxing as contrary to the public good.  A headline proclaimed the film of Jack Johnson’s championship match, in which he defeated a white man, a “Revolting Show.” The paper quoted the president of the police board, who characterized it as “humiliating to white people” and the police commissioner, who indicating that it will “give rise to racial prejudice” and, consequently, create a public disturbance.24 

However, as Collen Aycock writes, “Both baseball and boxing cut across racial and economic divides.”
25  As in its coverage of baseball, the Sunpapers’ sports pages focused on the skill of African American fighters.  A sportswriter would point out, for example, that “there was general prejudice against” them but also that “this was temporarily forgotten” in light of their boxing abilities.26  Many of the African American amateur, semi-pro, and professional athletes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were the best at what they did, regardless of race, and their skill and professionalism attracted admirers across and in spite of racial boundaries.  They, like Gans, made their “name and fame through sheer perseverance.”27  In doing so, they made the road a little less difficult for those African American athletes who came after them, although hatred and violence persisted. 

Their work countered the supposed moral hegemony of racism with skill and athleticism, which, in turn, created its own imperative.  If white teams or white boxers wanted to proclaim themselves the best, they had to confront the reality of black athletes.  African Americans were still segregated, but they could not be ignored.  They countered segregation and Jim Crow with a social movement of their own: that of continued excellence in athletics, combined with a refusal to stop or to be silent.  In doing so, they would demonstrate the moral bankruptcy of Jim Crowism in baseball and the ethical deficiencies of those men who promoted it.

1 Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott, Joe Gans: A Biography of the First African American World Boxing Champion  (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2008): 24.
2 Ibid, 255.
3 “Capt. Ward Leads Raid,” Baltimore Sun, July 27, 1902, 14.
4 “Receiver for Billiard Rooms,” Baltimore Sun, January 28, 1903, 6.
5 “Colored Southern Ball League,” Baltimore American, March 20, 1903, 10.
6 “Baltimore Giants Beaten,” Baltimore Sun, July 17, 1904, 10.
7 “Sporting Miscellany,” Baltimore Sun, July 9, 1901, 6.
8 Mark Kram, “It Seemed like it Happened in Another Country,” Baltimore News American, August 9, 1981, 2E.
9 “Gans Arranging Ball Schedule,” Baltimore Sun, July 5, 1905, 8.
10 “Busy Time for Gans’ Nine,” Baltimore Sun, July 14, 1905, 8.
11 “Games for Gans,” Baltimore Sun, August 13, 1905, 10.
12 “Gans Nine to Play Georgia Team,” Baltimore Sun, July 8, 1905, 8.
13 “Gans Team,” Baltimore Sun, July 16, 1905, 10.
14 “Crack Negro Team to Play,” Washington Post, June 25, 1905, SP2.
15 “Gans’ Team Defeated,” Washington Post, July 1, 1901, 8.
16 “Joe Gans a Ball Player,” Washington Post, July 1, 1901, 8.
17 “Gans Nine Defeated,” Baltimore Sun, July 19, 1901, 6.
18 “Gans and His Ball Team,” Baltimore Sun, May 21, 1905, 10.
19 “Games for Gans’ Team,” Baltimore Sun, August 13, 1905, 10.
20 “Crack Negro Teams to Play,” Washington Post, June 25, 1905, SP2.
21 Aycock and Scott, 200.
22 “Weldons Snowed Under,” Baltimore Sun, September 25, 1908, 10.

23 “Pugs Draw Color Line,” Washington Post, January 17, 1909, S2.
24 “To Exclude Revolting Show,” Baltimore Sun, July 6, 1910, 14.
25 Aycock and Scott, 13.
26 “Timely Boxing Talk,” Baltimore Sun, January 29, 1906, 8.
27 Ibid, 200.
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.

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