By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
Once every season, the Mariners present a “Turn Back The Clock” game to acknowledge the Pacific Northwest’s rich baseball history. The promotion is notable for colorful — and sometimes quirky — throwback uniforms that modern players don for the occasion, and for the celebration of the old timers who wore the original togs.
Since the first Turn Back affair in 1993, when the “1977” Mariners squared off against the “1969” Kansas City Royals in the Kingdome, the Mariners have saluted an array of teams and their various representatives, including the 1909 Seattle Turks, 1939 and 1955 Seattle Rainiers, and 1969 Seattle Pilots, the city’s original major league franchise.
Saturday night at Safeco Field, the Mariners (and Boston Red Sox) will focus the spotlight on 1946, when the Seattle Steelheads of the West Coast Negro Baseball League played their only season at Sicks’ Stadium. They also barnstormed through Tacoma, Bremerton, Spokane and Bellingham.
Mariners players will wear cream-colored uniforms with “Seattle” across the front in black block letters trimmed in gray. The cap will be black featuring a cream “S.”
The Red Sox will dress as the Boston Royal Giants, who were organized in 1923 but for marketing purposes played as the Philadelphia Royal Giants, who contested mill and industrial teams in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. The Red Sox will wear road gray unis with black trim and the word “Boston” in block letters across the front.
This will mark the second time the Mariners have saluted the Steelheads. On Sept. 9, 1995, at the start of their memorable run to the postseason, the Mariners, decked out as the “Steelies,” met the Kansas City Royals, garbed in Kansas City Monarchs regalia.
As part of Turn Back, the Mariners will, as they annually do, celebrate African-American Heritage Night by recognizing the contributions of African-Americans to the Northwest community.
Honorees include NBA legend Bill Russell, former SuperSonic Fred Brown, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bill Withers, former King County Executive Ron Sims, ex-Washington Huskies football star George Fleming, the first African-American elected to the state Senate, and business executive Art Harper. The Mariners will also pay tribute to Herb Simpson, the last known surviving member of the Steelheads, who died in January at 94.
Although the Steelheads represent Seattle’s only experience with a professional African-American team, the city’s association with black baseball stretches to the end of the 19th century, when organized baseball formally excluded blacks, first from the major leagues and then from the minors, a ban that went unbroken until Jackie Robinson a half-century later.
It would take a book to do justice to that history. Fortunately, Lyle Kenai Wilson wrote one, “Sunday Afternoons at Garfield Park.” Published in 1997, it provides a fascinating look at a major but murky span in the area’s sporting past.
Although “Sunday Afternoons at Garfield Park” is mainly concerned with the region’s black teams and players from 1911-1951, Wilson traces the story to as far back as 1890, when approximately 300 African-Americans lived in the Seattle area, and extends it into the early 1960s when the Negro Leagues faded into history.
Wilson picks up his story May 21, 1911, when the Seattle Gophers, apparently nicknamed after the St. Paul Gophers, one of the prominent black teams of the day, played at Woodland Park against the “Japanese Mikados,” who took a doubleheader by scores of 9-3 and 13-3.
From there, Wilson takes us through the Keystone Giants, Queen City All-Stars, Seattle Royal Giants, Washington Browns, Eastside Athletic Club, Carver Athletic Club and Steelheads, while also re-introducing several other African-American clubs, including a 1907 Tacoma team that played as the Moonlight Sluggers, the Tacoma Little Giants, Bremerton All-Stars and Paine Field Bombers, the latter two springing from military bases during World War II.
Leaving nothing unturned, Wilson even introduces the 1937 Ubangi Blackhawks, a football team sponsored by nightclub owner Noodles Smith that actually was made up of Seattle American Giants baseball stars.
“If we focus on Seattle, Tacoma, Yakima, Spokane, Vancouver, Ellensburg and Walla Walla, every one of those communities at some point in time had an all-black team,” Wilson said. “Wherever there was a large enough contingent of African-Americans, there was an African-American team. Seattle had the most consistent history through all of this, and the other places were a little spotty.”
The Gophers existed through World War I. They were succeeded in 1921, a year after Franklin High grad John Prim became the first black to play on the varsity baseball team at the University of Washington, by the Queen All-Stars, a team that in 1923 came under the sponsorship of Doc Hamilton, who promoted them with the flair of the nightclub owner he was.
Roslyn, WA., native Bob Saunders (born 1902) starred for Hamilton’s club. The Saunders family, along with many others who came to influence the development of black baseball in Washington state, had been part of a large migration of blacks recruited to Roslyn by the Northwest Coal Co. to serve, unwittingly, as strike breakers.
The Saunders clan eventually settled in the Rainier Valley. After Saunders graduated from Broadway High in 1922, he joined Hamilton’s All-Stars. By 1926, he moved to the Negro Leagues. For the next dozen years, he performed for the Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Stars and Memphis Red Sox.
The Queen City All-Stars had a prominent run through the 1920s – a June 1, 1924 contest at Woodland Park against the Mail Advertising Co. drew 4,000 fans – before Hamilton ran into legal problems, presumably forcing him to abandon sponsorship of the team.
But as the Queen City All-Stars faded from prominence, Seattle was introduced to a successor that dominated black baseball in the region from the Great Depression until World War II.
The Royal Giants, who played locally as well as touring through Monroe, Snohomish, Roslyn, Coupeville, Montesano, Kirkland and Bremerton, featured several players who previously had, or would have, careers in the Negro Leagues.
In addition to Saunders, back from the Negro Leagues to become the Giants’ first pitching ace, Elmer Wilson, who served as player/manager, had played for the Detroit Stars (1921-24), St. Louis Stars (1924-25, 1927) and Dayton Marcos (1925-26).
Jimmy Claxton, a Tacoma native who played for Rosalyn as a teenager, pitched for the Royal Giants in 1930. In 1916, Claxton, part Irish and English, part black and part Native American, became the first African-American in the 20thcentury to play in the minor leagues, appearing for the Oakland Oaks for two games. In 1932, Claxton played for both the Chicago Union Giants and Cuban Stars.
Owen Smaulding, a Queen City All-Stars alum who attended the University of Washington and University of Idaho, played for the Kansas City Monarchs (1927), Cleveland Tigers (1928), Chicago American Giants (1928), Birmingham Black Barons (1928) and Gilkerson’s Union Giants (1931-32).
In the mid-1930s, the Royal Giants got many of their best players from Garfield High, including Brennan King and Charley Russell. King subsequently played in the Negro Leagues for the Cincinnati Clowns (1943), Atlanta Black Crackers (1946) and Nashville Cubs (1947).
A three-sport star at Garfield, Russell played football at Washington, becoming only the second black to letter (1937), following Hamilton Greene (1921).
The Royal Giants morphed into the American Giants in 1937 and played in the Puget Sound League, winning the championship in 1938. But by then, the American Giants had been eclipsed as the best team in the state by the Washington Browns, out of Yakima.
As Wilson recounts in “Sunday Afternoons at Garfield Park,” the team had its genesis in Mississippi, specifically from the campus of the Piney Woods Country Life School, a Christian junior college. The school first fielded a baseball team in 1931, commonly called “The Singing Baseball Team,” since it had a quartet and provided music at its games.
By 1935, Piney Woods had three baseball teams. The best players from the three realigned as the St. Louis Blues. The Blues barnstormed, reaching California in the winter of 1936.
“It was the middle of the Depression and the team ran out of money,” Wilson explained. “Owen Smaulding (who played for the Gophers and Queen City All-Stars) was the manager of the Blues, and he knew a Yakima businessman named Ed Porter. Smaulding got in touch with Porter, who told Smaulding to bring his team to Yakima. The Blues played there in 1938 and 1939 as the Washington Browns.”
In addition to fulfilling city league duties, the Browns performed in British Columbia, Oregon, Northern California, Nevada, Idaho and Montana. Some of the most memorable games came against the House of David, a religious sect from Benton Harbor, MI., whose members did not shave or cut their hair.
Willie Foster, probably the greatest left-handed pitcher in the Negro Leagues history and the younger brother of Rube Foster, who founded the Negro National League in 1920, played with the Browns in 1938 as his career wound down.
The Browns were not Yakima’s first black team. In the 1920s, the Yakima Colored Giants were members of the Yakima City League, a fact uncovered by author Wilson during the extensive research he did in preparation for writing the book.
Now in his 60s and an attorney, Wilson grew up (Bellingham) with a tremendous interest in sports (he was a track athlete too) and the civil rights movement. As a young man, he had seen Satchel Paige pitch during a barnstorming tour. Years later, he came across a Sports Illustrated For Kids article on the Negro Leagues.
His interest sparked, he began checking out library books on the subject. Eventually, he became a contributing member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR). He published articles in various national journals, including one on the Harlem Globetrotters baseball team and another on the Chicago Americans’ tour of the Northwest.
In the course of research, Wilson ran across information that enhanced his desire to learn more about black baseball in the Northwest. How in the world, for example, did the famous Negro Leagues pitcher Willie Foster, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996, wind up in Yakima, pitching for the Browns?
After a newspaper microfilm grind at the University of Washington worthy of the seventh labor of Hercules, conducting two dozen interviews, and scouring museums and libraries, Wilson had his book, which provides the overwhelming majority of what is known about black baseball history in the Northwest.
“There really was just one team during the entire time, but it had different sponsors and different names along the way,” Wilson said. “I started with the Gophers and their name changed to the Keystone Giants. It’s the same group of guys, the same players.
“Then you get into the 1920s, and it becomes the Queen City All-Stars with Doc Hamilton, who was a very famous nightclub owner and the sponsor of the team at that time. Consistently, sponsors were nightclub owners because they had the money to sponsor a team.
“In the early 1930s, we have the Seattle Royal Giants. Primarily, there was always a team that one would have identified as Seattle’s homegrown, African-American team.”
The successor Eastside Athletic and Carver Athletic clubs, the latter named for famed African-American botanist George Washington Carver (often credited as the inventor of peanut butter), followed the Royal Giants. The Carver Athletic Club’s run overlapped that of the 1946 Steelheads and extended beyond, at least until 1951 when it, too, eclipsed into history after enjoying a league championship in 1949. A notable member of the 1951 Carver team: James Edwards, father of the future University of Washington and NBA star.
“In some years, the teams played in organized leagues, a Commercial League, a City League, a Puget Sound League,” said Wilson. “The team (under various names) also barnstormed around the state. In some years, the team was independent and not in any particular league.
“While the local teams were amateurs, of course, the Steelheads were professional, and while the Washington Browns have been described as semi-pro, I would classify them as professional as well. Some players ended up playing professionally, but the local teams were largely amateur.”
For the most part, they played straight baseball sans the comedic routines that distinguished the famous Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues.
“No one in this history we’re talking about would have done the equivalent of the Indianapolis Clowns, who had comedy going on consistently,” Wilson explained. “None of the local teams carried on in that fashion. Advertisements for the Queen City All-Stars indicated they had comedians on the team, so there was some sort of that going on, but not anywhere near the level of the Indianapolis Clowns.
“In the early ’30s, the Royal Giants incorporated some comedy, including the pantomime Shadow Ball pre-game warm-up. Later, you find virtually no comedy stuff, just straight baseball.”
Although the Steelheads were, in fact, the Harlem Globetrotters baseball team – they changed their name in order to attract a local following – they played straight baseball as did the other teams in the West Coast Negro League: Portland Rosebuds, Los Angeles White Sox, San Diego Tigers, Oakland Larks, San Diego Tigers and San Francisco Sea Lions (see Wayback Machine: Seattle Steelheads’ Short Life).
Scheduled to play a 110-game schedule with home contests at Sicks’ Stadium and other Northwest venues, the Steelheads under manager Paul Hardy, made it through two months before shutting down. The Steelheads spent the balance of 1946 barnstorming with the Havana La Palomas, a farm team of the Indianapolis Clowns, and then went back to being the Globetrotters.
The Steelheads not only did not receive support at the gate, they did not receive support from the Northwest Enterprise, a black-owned newspaper of the day that Wilson made great use of in his research on black baseball in Washington state.
“The Northwest Enterprise did not cover the Steelheads,” said Wilson, “and I think I know why. Seattle had its own black team in 1946, the Carver Athletic Club. Then this pro team comes in and the Steelheads are not their guys. And if you look at the whole history of what we’re talking about here, prior to the Steelheads coming in, the local black teams only one time had been allowed to play in Sicks Stadium.”
The Northwest Enterprise obviously resented the preferential treatment given to the Steelheads.
After the Pacific Coast League began integrating, Royal Brougham of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote an article in which he wondered why African-American fans who attended Rainiers games at Sicks’ Stadium often rooted for the visiting team. Turns out, they rooted if the opponent had a player or players “who looked like them.”
Wilson cited one example:
“You had African Americans coming out to Sicks’ Stadium and they rooted for Luke Easter of San Diego and not the Rainiers. Royal noticed this. We were slow to the party in terms of integrating the Rainiers.”
“Sunday Afternoons At Garfield Park” lists a half dozen Washingtonians who played at the top levels of the Negro Leagues. Wilson is convinced that several other players might have reached the major leagues had they been accorded the opportunity. At the very minimum, they were superb players in their day, starting with Ernie Tanner of the Tacoma Little Giants at the turn of the 20thcentury.
“He might have been the greatest high school athlete in the history of the state of Washington,” noted Wilson. “They called him the black Jim Thorpe.”
Tanner lettered four times each in four sports at Stadium High, and then enrolled at Whitworth for the 1908-09 academic year. In a 1908 football game, he led Whitworth to an upset win over the University of Oregon. He later starred for Tacoma’s Little Giants.
Ernie Tanner’s son, Jack, also starred at Stadium High and was a member of the school’s 1936 state championship baseball team. Good enough in football to get recruited by UCLA, Jack played for the American Giants and went on to earn a law degree at the University of Washington. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench; he was the first African-American federal judge west of the Mississippi.
Smaulding attended Albuquerque High (1916-19) before enrolling at Washington and later Idaho as a prelude to his stints with the Gophers and Queen City All-Stars.
“An incredible athlete,” said Wilson. “His high school football team – his high school team – once beat the University of New Mexico with Smaulding scoring three touchdowns.”
Charles Conna, whose father, John, was one of the early black settlers in the area, starred for the Keystone Giants prior to 1920.
Claude Norris was a three-sport athlete at Broadway High, starred in football at Whitman College, played first base for the Queen City All-Stars, served for 30 years as athletic trainer at Seattle University and had a long career as a Seattle policeman.
Powell Barnett played for and served several stints as manager of the Giants. A former Roslyn coal miner, Barnett founded the Northwest Baseball Umpires Association, and 1966 King County made him its Citizen of the Year.
Wilson described pitcher-first baseman Joe Staton Sr., also a Giant prior to the Depression, as a “multi-sport, multi-talented star.”
“Staton would have been a major leaguer, I think, if that had been available in his generation. He was incredible — tall, strongly built, incredibly fast,” said Wilson, who noted that son Joe Staton Jr., who played in the Central Area Youth Association in the early 1960s, made the majors with the Detroit Tigers.
Although Seattle had one African-American professional team – the Steelheads – the Negro Leagues enhanced that experience with barnstorming tours that passed through the state, all extensively documented in “Sunday Afternoons At Garfield Park.”
With Rube Foster accompanying, the Chicago American Giants passed through every summer from 1913-16 (Wilson wrote about this tour in one of his SABR articles). With Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige, the Kansas City Monarchs came to town at least eight times between 1934-52. Buck O’Neil’s Shreveport Giants visited in 1936-37.
The Harlem Globetrotters barnstormed the area in 1944, 1947, 1948 and 1954. The Indianapolis Clowns made appearances in 1963, 1964 and 1967, the last time with Paige the star attraction (Wilson saw Paige pitch in the 1967 game).
Of his long grind with newspaper microfilm while preparing “Sunday Afternoons At Garfield Park,” Wilson said, “Some people might find it tedious, but I found it fascinating.”
So did we.
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out David’s Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at firstname.lastname@example.org