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The history of black baseball in D.C. includes Frederick Douglass’ sons, Josh Gibson and the fight for equality

A look back as MLB All-Star Week comes to the nation’s capital

Charles Douglass came to Washington, D.C., in 1869 to begin his clerkship at the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. Once he and his family settled in after their move from Rochester, New York, to the Hillsdale/Barry Farm area of Southeast D.C., Douglass sought a baseball club.

The youngest son of renowned orator, writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass joined the District’s Alert Base Ball Club and Mutual Base Ball Club. When Douglass joined the team two years after its inception, the squad already had a steady rivalry with educator and civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto’s The Pythians of Philadelphia.

A year after joining the teams, Douglass became the Mutuals’ president in 1870, and his father, who often attended games and corresponded with his son about the intricacies of the sport, was made an honorary member of the team on Sept. 3, 1870. Frederick Douglass Jr. also played for the Alerts and Mutuals in 1870.

Washington, D.C.’s, first two black teams were formed 151 years ago as acts of resistance and to show white people that if given equal opportunity, black people could be just as if not more successful in anything they undertook. Charles Douglass’ objective when he ran the Mutuals, however, was not integration at all costs.

Black Washingtonians’ participation in baseball was about “autonomy, equality and opportunity,” historian Ryan Swanson notes.

“Black baseball, in Washington D.C. and often elsewhere, exhibited the blend of operational pragmatism and steely commitment to equality advocated by Frederick Douglass,” Swanson wrote in When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation and Dreams of a National Pastime. “When he had been asked for this definition of social equality, Douglass made clear that the point was to improve the lot of black Americans: ‘What is social equality? Is it to take the streets with others, to ride in the cars, to drink the same water? If these constitute social equality, then I am for it.

“In Charles Douglass’s baseball world, then, social equality seemed to support the creation of strong black-led clubs that then fought for equal access to baseball grounds and the opportunity to compete at baseball’s highest level. … There is no evidence of black ballplayers clamoring to join white baseball clubs.”

From baseball clubs led by black social and intellectual leaders of the 1860s and 1870s to Josh Gibson’s Washington Homestead Grays in the 1930s and 1940s to the neighborhood, amateur and semiprofessional black teams that filled the void in the latter half of the 20th century, black baseball in Washington, D.C., has played a huge part in the city and culture for well over 150 years.

With Major League Baseball’s All-Star festivities happening in Chocolate City, The Undefeated examines the history of black baseball in the nation’s capital from its inception to present day.

The Forest City Base Ball Club of Cleveland poses for a team portrait in Cleveland in 1870. In the aftermath of the Civil War, both Southerners and Northerners agreed to exclude black teams and players from baseball leagues to keep the game apolitical.

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

How did a country dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln decide it was going to mend its wounds?

America’s pastime. Well, baseball wasn’t America’s pastime just yet, but that’s how it got its start. Before the war, the popularity of the game was starting to spread, and after the war those in power saw it as a vehicle to reconcile the animosity and division in the United States after the Union defeated the Confederacy and the Reconstruction era was in its infancy.

Northerners resented Southerners for Lincoln’s murder, Southerners rebuffed having Northerners occupying their home to enforce Reconstruction-era legislation, and Washington, D.C., sat smack dab in the middle of all of this.

For this plan to succeed, the game needed to be apolitical. An issue that politicians, former soldiers and decision-makers from both the North and South wanted to avoid was the inclusion of black teams and players in their leagues.

“Both games [baseball and cricket] rest, first, upon the desire of the Anglo-Saxon [we do not say Caucasian or Aryan, because we like to be exact] to arm himself with a stick and drive a small round body with it,” said Henry Chadwick, who proclaimed himself the father of baseball, in his Base Ball Manual, for 1871. “And secondly, upon the desire of any other Anglo-Saxon who happens to be in the way to stop this body to deprive the other of his stick, and ‘bat’ himself.”

From the Sporting Life in June 29, 1895: “Nothing is ever said or written about drawing the color line in the [National] League. It appears to be generally understood that none but whites shall make up the League teams, and so it goes.”

Swanson summed it up even more matter-of-factly, stating that “thus, ironically, in the name of creating a ‘national pastime,’ baseball excluded black ballplayers.”

Now, there is no historical evidence to suggest that African-Americans were protesting to join the white clubs, which would have resulted in tangible tension, but that certainly didn’t stop white people from being wary in Washington, D.C.

Unlike other Northern cities such as Boston (3,496); Brooklyn, New York (4,944); Chicago (3,691); and New York (13,079), the District of Columbia’s black population at the time of the special census in 1867 was 38,663 in a city of 126,990 people. Just seven years earlier, there were only 14,316 blacks (11,131 free and 3,185 slaves) living in D.C.

“The total black populations in those northern cities … were minute, creating a minority population that was more invisible than threatening,” Swanson said. “Thus, in uncovering the story of segregation, it is vital to remember that the racial situation varied significantly region by region and city by city.”

The black population in the nation’s capital was perceived as a threat because of its sheer size and therefore had to be cautious that its efforts to be autonomous didn’t come off as attempts to force the issue.

The Mutuals’ earliest recorded game was on July 19, 1867, Baltimore Afro-American commentator Edwin Henderson reported after getting the records of Mutuals “scorer, secretary and one-time president of the club” Charles Bruce. The team met in its clubrooms on 11th Street near Pennsylvania Avenue, and most of the games were played on the White Lot, given its name for the white fence lining its perimeter and where the Ellipse is currently located.

Originally formed in Homestead, Pennsylvania, and taking root in Pittsburgh, the Homestead Grays eventually made D.C. their home away from home in 1940.

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

Charles Douglass played second base for the Alerts and the Mutuals, and in his role as Mutuals president he negotiated with opposing teams about the field the teams would play on, the rules of the game and how the gate proceeds would be split. The Society for American Baseball Research Journal Archive detailed how John “Bud” Flower, the first African-American in organized professional baseball, played for the Mutuals the same year that Charles joined the team in 1869. But Fowler’s birth year is generally noted as 1858, making it not impossible but unlikely he suited up for D.C.’s team.

Most of the clubs the Alerts and Mutuals played in the surrounding Alexandria, Virginia; Baltimore; and Annapolis area were black ball clubs, but when the team ventured north to Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania, the teams were white. The Trumbulls (Annapolis), Tecumsehs (Alexandria), Enterprise (Baltimore), Hannibals (Baltimore), Monumentals (Baltimore), Pythians (Philadelphia), Excelsiors (Philadelphia) and Howard University were the D.C. teams’ main rivals.

Howard and Mutual squared off for the first time on April 30, 1869, and the Mutuals’ rivalry with the Pythians ended on Oct. 10, 1871, when Catto was killed just outside of his home by white Democratic members trying to intimidate black Republicans on the first day black Philadelphians were legally allowed to vote.

According to Bruce’s records, Mutual would eventually become the only black team to become a member of the National Association of Amateur Baseball Players of America. In 1874, black clubs were banned from playing on the White Lot because of “the gangs of lazy negroes and other vagrants infesting the grounds,” the Sunday Herald and Weekly National Intelligencer wrote on Sept. 4, 1874. Henderson wrote that Bruce’s records of the team don’t go past 1877, but a Washington Post article from Aug. 2, 1879, reported that the Mutual met the all-white National Base Ball Club and lost 19-6 during the one-hour, 45-minute affair.

“It’s a long way from the Mutuals … but baseball was as American to colored people in 1867 as it is today,” Henderson wrote for the Afro-American on June 24, 1950. “We often fail to look backward as we cheer our heroes of today. We, therefore, are indebted for the written record compiled by the late Charles Bruce, who until his death at 90, was an avid baseball fan.”

The next iteration of black baseball started in 1928 with the formation of the semipro Washington Blacksox. The Blacksox welcomed the Negro League’s Homestead Grays to their field in Mitchellville, Maryland, for a game and Baltimore’s Black Sox team played at the park too.

A plethora of semiprofessional teams would be created in the D.C. area from the 1920s to the 1970s, including the Brentwood Flashes, Clinton Astros, Galesville Hot Sox, Glenarden Braves, Laurel All-Stars, Mitchellville Tigers, Oxon Hill Aztecs, Pomonkey Browns and Vista Yankees.

Satchel Paige (left) of the Monarchs talks with Josh Gibson (right) of the Homestead Grays before a game in Kansas City in 1941.

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

“You got so many players who should have been in the majors, but you didn’t have the scouting system coming into the sandlots,” Don Tolson, a former member of the Clinton Astros, told The Washington Post on Sept. 22, 1996, when Prince George’s County celebrated the newly renovated fields at Blacksox Park.

The next professional black team in the district was when the Homestead Grays came to Washington, D.C. Originally formed in Homestead, Pennsylvania, and taking root in Pittsburgh, the Grays eventually made D.C. their home away from home in 1940.

Griffith Stadium, located at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue Northwest on the edge of Black Broadway and down the street from Howard University, was one of the only major league ballparks in the country, along with Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, where black and white teams both played.

Stars such as Josh Gibson (catcher), James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell (center fielder), Ray Brown (pitcher), Buck Leonard (first baseman), Cum Posey (former player and team owner) and Jud Wilson (third baseman) played in the District and attracted crowds of all races to the stadium. All of those men have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1943, Gibson hit 10 home runs at Griffith Stadium, a year when the entire Washington Senators team could muster only nine. The team won nine consecutive Negro National League titles and 10 of 12 NNL championships — 1937-45 and 1948 — while in the nation’s capital. All three of the Homestead Grays’ Negro World Series were won while playing in Washington, D.C. (1943, 1944 and 1948).

The statue to former catcher Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays stands in the Center Field Plaza before the Opening Day game on April 13, 2009, between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.

Diamond Images/Getty Images

Many of the Negro Leagues’ best players were drafted for World War II, but stars like Gibson, who had bad knees, and the Kansas City Monarchs’ Satchel Paige, who had flat feet, weren’t able to fight. Black people experienced an increase in disposable income as a result of jobs needing to be filled, and Negro Leagues organizations experienced a golden era in revenues as they surpassed the $2 million mark, thanks to people having more money and time to spend.

At that time, the Negro Leagues were among the most lucrative black-owned businesses in the United States, in large part because of rivalries such as the Homestead Grays versus the Monarchs, which continued to bring in massive crowds during World War II. Washingtonian Sam Lacy aided in the increased exposure of black baseball players, as he routinely took a sledgehammer to racism and segregation of the sport.

A former student at Howard, the first black member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and the man who chronicled Jackie Robinson’s integration of MLB, Lacy worked for the Washington Tribune, Chicago Defender and Baltimore Afro-American and brought greater awareness to the achievements of African-Americans in sports. He also mentored Howard graduate Arthur Mantel Carter, who worked for Lacy at the Tribune and eventually took over as sports editor for the Washington Afro-American.

In 1951, the Homestead Grays disbanded, and Griffith Stadium, where the team had played, was razed in 1965 and Howard University Hospital was built on the site in 1975.

The team was not forgotten though. In 2002, as talks got underway about the Montreal Expos moving to Washington, D.C., the debate raged among the three possible team names. There was the Senators, which the Texas Rangers owned the rights to, but had an obvious nostalgia factor; the Grays, a nod to the team that called the city home for 15 years but was based in Pittsburgh; and the Nationals.

Mayor Anthony Williams was not fond of the Senators name, seeing as the city is not represented by any senators, and threw his vote in the hat for the Grays. The Nationals ultimately won.

“Over the years, Washington, D.C., has had black teams and white teams; professional teams and amateur teams; neighborhood teams and city-wide teams,” the Anacostia Community Museum wrote in the 2008 exhibit Separate and Unequaled: Black Baseball in the District of Columbia. “Baseball has long been a part of Washington, D.C.’s social fabric — a sometimes unifying factor in a city struggling not only with its local/federal government identity but also with its long-standing segregationist tendencies.”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.