The New York Black Yankees
Chapter 2 — The Turning Point of Black Baseball
M.E. Goodson was a mysterious man. He was a barber and cabaret owner, a gangster in Harlem, and likely a numbers man or bootlegger. His cabaret was the De Luxe Palace on 135th Street. What he looked like can be seen in a newspaper photo taken in April 1932 by a reporter for The New York Amsterdam News.
Sometime in 1931, he stepped in and bailed out the Black Yankees. The Black Yankees wore the used up uniforms of the regular white, major league Yankees. There are accounts from Black Yankees players of being handed a shirt or pair of pants with the name of a famous player inside. One player spoke of having worn Lou Gehrig’s pants, and later, another wore Joe DiMaggio’s shirt.
How or why Goodson had to step in is still a mystery. Bojangles, one of the owners at the time, was an itinerate gambler and a bleeding heart for the poor of Harlem. The other owner, James “Soldier Boy” Semler, a known numbers man in Harlem, also had questionable judgment. Unfortunately, the events that led to the organizational changes in 1931 will remain shrouded in the veils of the past.
…all of the team owners in the northeast decided to meet
On October 15, 1931, all of the team owners in the northeast decided to meet at the 12th Street Branch YMCA at 4pm in Washington DC to discuss the upcoming season. This meeting was the turning point for black baseball because it was the point when the team owners realized that there was no coming back to the Negro National League. Rube Foster, the father of black baseball, hadn’t even been dead a year. The league he had worked so hard to create was non-existent.
These owners were once a part of the league that Rube had formed. Some of these owners were numbers men that would caress the neighborhoods and have the people cast their lot into the “numbers”. They had silver tongues, stogies in their mouths, sharp tailored business suits and shined leather shoes. They drove Duesenbergs and had women on their arms.
These men were the Wall Streeters if they had been allowed to work on Wall Street. White businessmen also noticed how much money the black baseball teams were making. They tried to muscle their way in. The meetings held for black baseball club owners were always held in first class locations. The 12th Street Branch YMCA was no exception. It was built by one of the nation’s first African American architects. It was built in a Renaissance Revival style, with all the opulence and grand architectural elements that go with it. Arches, high ceilings, ornate crown molding, and wide doorways are a few examples.
So it was here that the men of baseball discussed the future of the sport they loved so much.
Cumberland Posey was the organizing force behind the meeting. He was 51 at the time, and a long-time player and manager of the Homestead Grays. He was a politician, businessman and a familiar figure in his community. He had been with the team since they started as a pee-wee summer team. His business sense and connections brought the Grays success. He was an educated man with degrees in Pharmacy and Chemistry. He was refined, well-spoken, and always well-groomed. He was the exception to the numbers men. He was strict with his players, and never allowed them to engage in any gambling. Off the field he always had a woman on his arm, no matter what city he was in. He was a well-established lady’s man.
Cumberland went by “Cum” with a column in the Pittsburgh Courier called “Cum’s Pointed Paragraphs”. He was the son of a prominent business man in Pittsburgh, Cumberland Senior. His father was successful as a riverboat engineer on the Ohio River and later the General Manager of the Delta Coal Company. Cumberland had grown up in a beautiful Italianate mansion in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. He was born to privilege and believed he was entitled to success. He was firm in the stance that he was the leader of black baseball, and this meeting was likely his attempt to secure that position for himself.
Next entered Otto Briggs. The 40 year old ballplayer was a combat veteran from World War I. Briggs was a tall, lanky man with a thin face and a wide mouth. He had been playing baseball since he was 24 years old.When he was playing as a young man for the Hilldale Daisies “he would wear uniforms that had big sleeves so he could get hit by a pitch by letting the ball tap his floppy sleeve.” He was the manager and an active player of the Atlantic City/Philadelphia Bacharach Giants.
The next owner to arrive was George Rossiter. He had been beaten around in the black press for his lack of interest in hiring black employees at Maryland Park and the poor condition of the stadium.George was the co-owner of the Baltimore Black Sox. George was an Irishman. He was from Baltimore, and was a hard worker. He owned a seafood restaurant in Baltimore on the corner of Hamburg and Hanover Streets that specialized in crab cakes. According to various sources, George was a good team owner and he was “honest and a man of his word”. He would arrange postseason exhibition games against major-leaguers every year.
Lloyd P. Thompson was the next owner to be present at the meeting. He was on the board of directors for the Hilldale Daisies, and had been with the team since its beginnings as a team for youngsters in 1912. He had watched the players grow into talented athletes. He was also “pioneer sports writer” writing articles about the different players in black baseball. His articles are still used as references today.
The other owner of the Hilldale Daisies was a powerful, wealthy black businessman and politician named John M. Drew. Drew was a powerful man, and he dressed like one. He wore sharp suits, polished shoes, wool coats, and expensive hats. He had started his ownership in 1928 when the former owner, Ed Bolden had a nervous breakdown. Bolden had started the Eastern Colored League, one of the first great bastions of black baseball. The Negro National League, which had played against the Eastern Colored League, folded at the end of the 1931 season. Drew was bitter and pessimistic by this point, and didn’t think that he could continue as an owner for much longer. He pointed out that: “…baseball is a luxury and not a necessity, and the people don’t have too much money for luxuries during these times.”
The next heavy-hitter was Syd Pollock. He owned a theater and had a knack for side-splitting entertainment. He was a current officer of the Cuban House of David Club, the Jewish-Hispanic baseball team that was famous for refusing to play on the Sabbath. One quote attributed to him is: “Everyone is a companion, and no one a competitor”. Cum Posey found Syd to be a “pleasant fellow”. Syd liked to push the limits, and do things with his teams that were unconventional, and sometimes very offensive to the black community. He liked to combine comedy and baseball. The slapstick comedy that was so popular at the time was central to the appeal of Syd’s teams.
Many players in black baseball were comedians. Some players would get on their knees when a low ball was pitched. Others would cartwheel around the bases versus running. Syd’s teams were best known for doing dances and wearing funny and sometimes crude costumes.
There were three more owners that came that day, but they didn’t last long after the 1932 season. The last owner to be invited to the meeting was M.E. Goodson.
There was no league for any of the teams in the Northeast to be a part of right now, and the team owners wanted to remedy that. The new league would be known as the East-West League. Surrounded by cigar and cigarette smoke, the baseball magnates began to carve out the laws for the new league.
By January 1932, another meeting was scheduled in Chicago.
To be continued…
The New York Black Yankees is a serial story with a chapter being published every week.
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