By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
Seattle has been represented by many franchises in a variety of sports, none as short-lived as the Seattle Steelheads of the West Coast Negro Baseball League. The Steelheads, who played most of their home games at Sicks’ Stadium, came and went in a two-month span (June-July) of 1946, their arrival greeted by one paragraph in The Seattle Times, their departure summed up in a single sentence with no headline in the same newspaper.
Based on attendance figures, baseball fans of the day took to the Steelheads. More than 2,500 watched the Steelheads make their Sicks’ Stadium debut June 2 against the San Diego Tigers, and 1,500 on average attended each of what few home games remained.
According to available intelligence, of which there is little, the Steelheads turned a modest profit during their two-month residency, but vamoosed, never to return, when they discovered they could make a greater profit barnstorming through Midwest ballparks.
The West Coast Negro Baseball League formed Oct. 18-20, 1945 at an Elks Club in Oakland, with the backing of an organization called the “High Marine Social Club.” Harlem Globetrotters basketball owner Abe Saperstein and track and field legend Jesse Owens were co-founders with Saperstein also serving as league president and Owens as vice-president. Owens also owned the Portland franchise, the “Rosebuds” or “Roses.”
The key figure in the league’s formation was a man named Eddie Harris, a High Marine Social Club member and former Negro minor league player with the California Eagles who solicited the bulk of financing. He ultimately became business manager of the Oakland Larks, and helped recruit the remainder of the league’s owners, including Harold “Yellowhorse” Morris, a former star player for the Kansas City Monarchs, of the San Francisco Sea Lions, Carlisle Perry of the Los Angeles White Sox and Roy Parker of the San Diego Tigers.
Surviving documents from the league’s organizational meetings show that the Steelheads were owned by Claude Norris, once a Seattle police officer, but according to Leslie A. Heaphy, who wrote “The Negro Leagues: 1869-1960,” the “Steelies” were actually owned by Saperstein. Why Saperstein elected to hide his ownership is a mystery.
“All the owners expected financial success because of the growing African-American population in the West,” Heaphy wrote in his history of the league. “They founded the league not as competition to the white leagues, but to provide an opportunity for blacks in the West to be able to play baseball for money.”
All of the owners believed they had a winner. Saperstein was considered one of the shrewdest sports owners/executives in the country and Owens, charged with promoting the league, was still huge draw a decade after his Olympic exploits in Berlin. Also, Negro League Baseball had a good financial track record in the eastern and southern parts of the country, and Saperstein especially believed the West Coast would take to it.
On June 4, 1946, the Portland Oregonian, reported, “Jesse Owens himself, the famous colored athlete who has performed in Portland and is well known here, says he has a good team lined up . . . Of course, the new league is starting on a modest basis. However, he (Owens) emphasized that this is the beginning of regular colored Pacific Coast baseball.”
The owners, each required to pay a $500 fee to join the league (that wasn’t enforced) decided on a 110-game schedule, although all clubs were allowed to book as many non-league games throughout North America as they desired. Saperstein immediately formulated plans for the Steelheads to play “home” games in Tacoma, Bremerton, Spokane and Bellingham to expose professional black baseball to the region.
West Coast Negro League owners also opted, to save on expenses, to play a majority of their regular-season games in Pacific Coast League stadiums while the home teams were on the road.
The Steelheads did not spring to life out of nowhere. Saperstein founded his baseball club in August of 1944 to compliment his Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, a competitive, serious operation at the time, and introduced it Aug. 6, 1944 in front of 4,000 onlookers at Sicks’ Stadium, who watched the bearded House of David sweep a doubleheader from the Globetrotter baseballers by identical 1-0 scores.
The Globetrotters barnstormed throughout the Northwest for the remainder of that summer and in 1945 played in hundreds of U.S. cities, often accompanied by Owens, who put on running exhibitions during lulls in the games. He often ran against racehorses.
After the formation of the West Coast Negro Baseball League, Saperstein’s Globetrotters, who had effectively merged with another barnstorming team, the Cincinnati Crescents (most famous player was Luke Easter), changed their name to “Seattle Steelheads” in order to help develop a local fan base.
A few months after the Steelheads played their final game at Sicks’ Stadium in July, 1946, they reverted back to playing as the Harlem Globetrotters, reducing the “Seattle Steelheads” to a minor curiosity in the city’s long sporting history.
The first league game took place in May 1946 between the Los Angeles White Sox and San Francisco Sea Lions at Seals Stadium. California governor Earl Warren, later Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, threw out the first pitch. Meanwhile, Oakland’s first game was held in Fresno.
The Steelheads opened the 1946 season with a two-week road trip that began in El Paso, TX., against Owens’ Rosebuds. Seattle’s newspapers barely tracked the progress of the team as it played its way north to Seattle and largely ignored the Steelheads once they arrived for their first home game.
Over the course of their two-month existence, the papers mainly recapped Steelheads games with a paragraph, sometimes two, frequently giving local bowling and tennis results more ink. The following Times paragraph, published June 2, 1946, “advanced” the first Steelheads game:
“The Seattle Steelheads, local entry in the new West Coast Negro Baseball Association, make their home debut today at Sicks’ Stadium with a twin bill with the San Diego Tigers, starting at 1:30 o’clock. Mike (Red) Berry, former Kansas City Monarchs ace, and Al Sayler, bellweather of the Birmingham Black Barons in their championship years, will hurl for the Steelheads.”
This was the entire Times review of the Steelheads’ inaugural, played before a crowd of both black and white fans:
“The Seattle Steelheads, members of the new Pacific Coast Negro Baseball League, made their home debut before 2,500 fans at Sicks’ Stadium yesterday, dividing a twin bill with the San Diego Tigers. The Tigers won the opener 8-7 with a three-run, eighth-inning rally that beat Mike (Red) Berry. Seattle grabbed the nightcap 3-0 behind Lafayette Washington’s four-hit hurling. The opener was held up a half hour as the Seattle team’s bus broke down in Salem, and the players had to taxi in from there.”
Since neither The Times nor Seattle Post-Intelligencer ever wrote much more about the Steelheads than short recaps, the city’s baseball fans failed to receive much of an introduction to players such as manager/catcher Paul Hardy, second baseman/shortstop Sherwood “Woody” Brewer, first baseman Herb Simpson, catcher Everett “Ziggy” Marcel and outfielder Zell Miles, all long-time Negro League players.
Berry, the losing pitcher in the Steelheads’ home opener, was one of the few rookies on the roster. Manager Hardy came to the club from the Chicago American Giants, signing to play with Seattle before receiving his official release from the Chicago club. As a result, the Negro American League banned its players from playing in Seattle.
Born in 1923 and reared in Illinois, infielder Sherwood Brewer played for the Globetrotters, New York Cubans, Indianapolis Clowns and Kansas City Monarchs. A Negro League All-Star almost every season, Brewer later taught infield techniques to Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks before they reached the major leagues. Brewer also briefly managed the Monarchs.
Banks, who became a Hall of Fame shortstop, frequently credited Brewer with the success he enjoyed in the majors. Brewer had played military baseball prior to joining the Steelheads and later served during the Korean War.
Brought up in New Orleans, first baseman Herb “Briefcase” Simpson came to the Steelheads after playing for the Black Barons. Later, he played for the Chicago American Giants, Spokane Indians, New Orleans Creoles and Harlem Globetrotters. Herb acquired the nickname “Briefcase” while barnstorming with outfielder/pitcher Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, so nicknamed because of the number of times he was traded.
Everett “Ziggy” Marcel might have been the Steelheads’ best all-around athlete. He caught for the Kansas City Monarchs, Satchel Paige All-Stars, Homestead Grays, New York Black Yankees, Chicago American Giants, Baltimore Elite Giants, and Newark Eagles (see Wayback Machine: Satchel Paige In Seattle).
The 6-foot-3 Marcel also played basketball for Saperstein’s Globetrotters (1941-44) and played end for the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League (1944) alongside Jackie Robinson.
Vincent Lee “Nap” Gulley pitched (threw several no-hitters) and played the outfield for the Monarchs, Chicago American Giants, Black Barons and Cleveland Buckeyes before joining the Steelheads, and played for the Newark Eagles after the Steelheads folded.
Ulysses “Hickey” Redd played shortstop for the Black Barons and Harlem Globetrotters. After his career ended in 1954 with the Chicago American Giants, he drove the team bus for the Globetrotters basketball team.
According to the few articles available, one of the main reasons Steelheads players enjoyed playing in Seattle were the dozen or so jazz clubs on Jackson Street in the Chinatown district, the most famous of which was “The Black and Tan at 12th and Jackson. The club’s name came from the black, white and Asian patrons who frequented the place during its four decades of operation.
Due to its reputation, the Black and Tan and the Black Elks Club, among others, drew in jazz greats such as Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Lena Horne, Ernestine Anderson, Ray Charles, Count Basie, Charlie Parker and a young Quincy Jones.
According to author Heaphy, the Steelheads and Oakland Larks (one of the Oakland players was Lionel Wilson, who became the first and three-time black mayor of Oakland) were the only West Coast Negro League teams to turn a profit.
In July of 1946, two months after the league’s launch, and with the rest of the clubs making little to no money, the West Coast Negro Baseball League began to unravel. Even the great Owens couldn’t sell enough tickets in Portland save the Rosebuds. When they disbanded, The Oregonian failed to take note of their demise.
The Steelheads received this acknowledgement: “The Steelheads, Seattle entry in the Coast Negro League, will play here no more for a while as they found Middle Western exhibition games more profitable.” That sentence appeared at the bottom of an Alex Shults column in the Times July 19, 1946.
Once the Steelheads evacuated Sicks’ Stadium in favor of more lucrative venues, they used their nickname until September when Saperstein reorganized the club as “Abe Saperstein’s Negro All-Stars,” which toured Hawaii with many former Steeleheads players on the roster. Two years after leaving Seattle, virtually the same team that operated as the Steelheads performed as the “Hawaiian All-Stars.”
Seattle had one final exposure to the West Coast Negro Baseball League. In August of 1946, a little more than a month after the Steelheads left, the Oakland Larks and House of David met at Sicks’ Stadium for a three-game “barnstorming barnburner,” as the Post-Intelligencer referred to it.
The House of David, originally formed in 1903 to represent a religious colony in Benton Harbor, MI, toured since the 1920s and claimed to have invented the game of pepper. House of David players were known for their flowing beards (considered part of their uniforms, according to the contracts they signed) and trick plays on the baseball diamond.
When the House of David and Oakland played at Sicks’ Stadium Aug. 7, 1946, a crowd reportedly in excess of 12,000 fans watched.
What had seemed like a good idea in 1945 – bringing Negro baseball to the West Coast – had run its course by 1947. With the major leagues returning to full operation in the aftermath of World War II, interest in the Negro Leagues began to wane, especially after Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the major leagues began to integrate.
Not many recall the Steelheads today, but the Seattle Mariners do. On Sept. 9, 1995, during a game with the Kansas City Royals, the Mariners staged “Tribute To The Negro Leagues Night” and saluted the 75th anniversary of the Negro Leagues by wearing throwback jerseys (Royals wore Monarchs jerseys, Mariners Steelhead jerseys) and giving away Negro League baseball hats to the fans.
For the occasion, the Mariners invited to Seattle several former Negro League stars, including former Steelhead infielder Sherwood Brewer and Artie Wilson, who had played for the Birmingham Black Barons before helping integrate the Seattle Rainiers in 1952 (see Wayback Machine: Artie, Bob Cross The Line).
The Mariners also introduced eight former Negro League players who were living in Seattle: Norris Phillips, James Allen and Earl “Woody” Woodson (Kansas City Monarchs); Sanford Barnes (St. Louis Blues); Jim Benton (Brooklyn Cuban Giants); Sonny McClendon (Detroit Stars); William Ponder (Fort Lauderdale Gray Sox) and Charlie White (Philadelphia Stars).
Former Steelhead Brewer, who played with or saw most professional players, black and white, for most of the century, was asked to name the best.
“The best hitter I ever saw was Ted Williams, followed by Josh Gibson,” Brewer told The Seattle Times. “The best ballplayer I ever saw was Willie Mays, followed by (CF) Oscar Charleston. Pete Reiser, if he hadn’t got hurt so much, he would have been right up there.”
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi.Check out Davids Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at firstname.lastname@example.org