As a child in the 1950s, local historian Frank White loved to watch his dad, Louis “Pud” White Jr., play baseball with the Twin City Colored Giants. “Little Lou,” as he was known to the players, kept to himself, quietly soaking it all in.
That experience made an impression on White, who runs the Minnesota Twins’ “Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities” program. At one point for his job, he started digging deeper into the black baseball scene, which disappeared in the 1960s.
He kept at it, and he’ll share his expertise as part of a few events centering on black baseball that the Bloomington Human Rights Commission is hosting in honor of Black History Month.
First, a “stadium-style” lunch that features White is coming up this Friday, Feb. 7, at the Creekside Community Center. He’s also the keynote speaker for a bigger event on Feb. 27 at the city’s Civic Plaza.
Throughout the month, White will give behind-the-scenes tours of the exhibit of which he’s the curator, titled, “They Played for the Love of the Game: Adding to the Legacy of Minnesota Black Baseball,” which will be on view at the plaza through Feb. 28. White is also working on a book about the subject, which will be published by the Ramsey County Historical Society this spring.
Additionally, the Feb. 27 event will include several other presentations, displays and family-friendly activities, including a theater performance about a key moment in black baseball history.
Minnesota never had a Negro League baseball team, but a number of semiprofessional black teams thrived around the state. It’s hard to find documentation of it “because of the times,” he said. “Segregation was a part of baseball, and it paralleled what was going on with the Jim Crow laws.”
Often, the North has been painted as a “a place that’s better than the South. That’s not completely true,” White said.
As a result, the stories of many outstanding baseball players in Minnesota and beyond are lost, he said.
Despite the barriers for black players, they shared a love for the game. During their barnstorming games around the state, which they played for money, the players got to socialize while also making a little extra cash, he said.
More broadly, for the public, it was a source of entertainment. “The team was the pride for the town,” he said.
Mary Rice, who chairs the Bloomington Human Rights Commission, said White’s stories are eye-opening. “I had no idea about what it was like here for African-American baseball players in the first half of the century,” she said.
That’s why the commission chose to focus on that theme this month. “It’s important for all of us to remember the struggles of the past, what people went through to get us where we are today,” she said. White’s findings reveal the “courage and strength in the African-Americans who played baseball before they were allowed to play in the major leagues,” she said. “Their contributions were huge.”
A learning experience
White admires players like William “Billy” Williams, right, who stood up for blacks everywhere when he turned down an offer to play with the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles wanted Williams, a light-skinned African-American who played for a Chaska team, among others, to pose as a Native American. “Billy decided that he was proud of who he was, something that his mother had encouraged in him,” so he took a different route.
Williams became the personal assistant to Gov. John A. Johnson in 1904. He stayed on to serve 14 governors until 1952. However, Williams still enjoyed playing baseball in his off-time, he said.
White has also learned more about his dad’s accomplishments, which never came up at home, he said.
John “Buck” O’Neil, a former player who was chairman of the board for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., talks in a video in the exhibit about attempts to recruit White’s dad to the Kansas City Monarchs just out of high school.
Along the way, White has also crossed paths with other people who’ve helped him fill in other blanks. For example, a rare old score book that an acquaintance produced has been invaluable, he said.
A key moment
Ironically, the signing of Jackie Robinson, right, to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 “was the demise of the Negro Leagues,” he said.
By 1952, more than 120 players had been recruited out of the Negro Leagues, but few advanced to the major leagues, due to an “unofficial quota system,” he said.
The Feb. 27 event includes a show, titled “A Cooperstown Visit,” that sheds light on that subject.
Chuck Chalberg, an area teacher, actor and historian, will portray Branch Rickey, the Dodger executive who brought in Robinson. Actor Warren Bowles is playing Robinson.
The show’s main thrust is Rickey’s spirited interview with Robinson. He was “trying to find out if Robinson would be able to put up with everything [in the major league team] without losing his cool,” Chalberg said.
Rickey knew that it would be tough to navigate the white-dominated league. On top of that, Robinson had a reputation for his temper. If any problems arose with Robinson, it could jeopardize the experiment to integrate blacks into the major leagues, Chalberg said.
Rickey was a leader in this front. “He liked to use big words and he talked a lot about ‘proximity.’ He believed that if you put people of different colors together, it would all work out,” Chalberg said.
In the end, Robinson “turned out to be better than he thought he would,” Chalberg said.
Although Robinson is a household name, few people know of Rickey, who was “a very American character,” he said.
Twins’ start in Bloomington
Also as a part of the Feb. 27 event, Stew Thornley, a baseball historian and an official scorer for Twins games, will recount the events that brought the Twins to Minnesota in 1961. His talk includes “what happened leading up to it and how the team could’ve ended up in St. Louis Park and Met Stadium,” he said.
In the 1950s, the Minneapolis Millers, then owned by the New York Giants, were scoping out places for a new stadium, as existing ballparks were aging, he said.
Local cities got into the act to attract a major league team. That happened with the construction of Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, which opened in 1956, thanks to the collaboration of local businesses, civic groups and the city of Minneapolis.
The Twins and the Vikings both played in the stadium from 1961 until 1981. By the time the teams relocated to the Metrodome, the area, once a cornfield, had changed dramatically.
Thornley will always have a soft spot for the Metropolitan Stadium, which was demolished in 1985. His earliest baseball memories are tied to the stadium that was “nice, but nothing fancy.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.