01 October 2013

First National Baseball Congress in Wichita, 1935

From Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball's Color Line, by Tom Dunkel (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2945-86:
In the nightcap, which dragged on till nearly 1 a.m., the Texas Centennials slipped by Stockton, California, 4–2. The Wichita Eagle sports department didn’t have much experience handling ethnic news, but muddled through. “The colored boys took a lead in the fourth,” the paper’s story said, but then “the Japs tied it in the sixth” only to watch helplessly as “the Texas colored club went in the fore again in the seventh” after Stockton’s center fielder collided with the flagpole, turning a long fly ball into an even longer triple and go-ahead run. Then came the hard part. The editors had to write a headline about a black team winning a ball game in Wichita. They’d never been called on to do that before. Could readers handle it? Was there a way to break the news to them gently? Under pressure, an Eagle wordsmith engineered a solution: Japanese Lose In Pitchers’ Battle Against Texans.

Grappling with issues of race was a Jayhawk tradition. Kansans fought what amounted to a guerrilla war (with wild-eyed John Brown emerging as the most notorious provocateur) over whether to enter the Union in 1861 as a slave or free state. The Free Staters prevailed, but that didn’t end discrimination. In 1906 Wichita implemented a segregated school system, adopting a kind of reverse busing policy: black children from majority-white neighborhoods were transported to all-black schools to prevent commingling. Most aspects of civic life were similarly regimented. Dockum Drug Store served as the National Baseball Congress box office. Blacks could buy tickets there for games, but they knew better than to sit down at the lunch counter and expect service. A black team had applied to play in the city’s adult baseball league in 1933, but the request was denied. Generally, black teams were confined to their own ball field on Twelfth and Mosely streets, although some were able to arrange pickup games with whites.

The public venue where blacks and whites interacted with the fewest restrictions was Lawrence Stadium. Up in the grandstand, seating was open to everyone. Down on the field, black teams competed in Hap Dumont’s Kansas state tournament and, now, the National. This had repercussions beyond the Wichita Eagle sports department. The desk clerk at the Hotel Broadview was thrown into a tizzy when Neil Churchill checked in late Tuesday night. Churchill had reserved eight rooms for a party of sixteen people. Only when the team walked through the front door of the hotel together did it become evident that eight of those would-be guests were . . . black men. Big black men standing in the lobby waiting for room keys. The desk clerk hemmed and hawed, refusing to register them. Churchill raised hell. The hotel manager came over and apologized, but there was nothing he could do: company policy, sir. For the first time, the Bismarck baseball team had to settle for separate accommodations. The white players, plus Churchill and trainer Roy McLeod, got to sleep in style at the Broadview. The black players went off searching for rooms in a black neighborhood on the northeast side of town.

Double Duty Radcliffe didn’t say anything to Churchill, but he actually preferred staying elsewhere. It would be far easier to sneak a lady, especially a white lady, into his room if that room were someplace other than in a snooty downtown hotel. Black ballplayers knew through the grapevine where a bed could be found in most sports towns. Radcliffe and Paige recalled a Miss Jones who ran a Wichita boardinghouse where they could crash for $3 a night, two home-cooked meals included. Radcliffe claimed that the fallback plan worked to perfection. He shacked up for the next two weeks with Juanita Baldinado, a half-Mexican dream girl. Double Duty promised to marry her someday, but of course he didn’t mean it and of course she probably knew that. He was an incorrigible hoochie-coochie man. And a flimflammer. “Double Dubious” Radcliffe. It’s certainly possible his tournament nights were, indeed, spent wrapped in the warm embrace of lovely Juanita. It’s also possible that he killed time reading the Wichita Eagle, front to back, alone in his room. One never knew with him. Radcliffe could simply have eaten Tex-Mex for dinner and fed his fantasies: a steak fajita became a sultry seƱorita.

Hotel snubs aside, it didn’t take long for race to become the talk of Dumont’s delicately balanced tournament. All of one day. The Eagle’s Pete Lightner rode that horse right out of the gate. He covered the National from start to finish and his columns became a running conversation with himself as much as with his readers. Lightner named four teams in attendance from the South—“the old South, Dixie”—as if he were listing bomb-making materials: Gadsden, Alabama; Rossville, Georgia; Shelby, North Carolina; and New Orleans, Louisiana. It looked to him as though Hap Dumont had a big problem in the offing: “To wit: How to run a tournament without having the southern boys clash with the colored teams.” Could they be kept at arm’s length? If not, could a truce be negotiated? Lightner had his doubts. Blacks and whites competed for the same trophy and the same prize money; there were no parallel separate-but-equal brackets. There could be only one winner.

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