(Listen to this episode of Delmarva’s Own podcast wherever you get your podcasts, or by clicking here.)
For the last conversation I had during Black History Month in 2021, I was hoping to answer one question: Were there any Negro League teams on the Delmarva Peninsula?
When I began looking for information about Negro League baseball on the Eastern Shore, I first went to the Eastern Shore haven for historians – the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University. According to the SU website, the Nabb center’s main goal is to “showcase the Shore’s rich history and culture.” Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nabb Center had offered a baseball exhibit. (The online version of this exhibit is still available here.) I’d seen it, so I contacted the Nabb Center to ask who might be best for us to speak to about Negro League baseball on Delmarva.
Their answer: Dr. Kirkland Hall.
I also contacted the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame. They also recommended I speak with Dr. Kirkland Hall.
As if that wasn’t enough, our former guest, Dr. Clara Small, an actual historian also told me Dr. Hall was the go-to authority for all things Delmarva baseball, including the Negro Leagues.
I called Dr. Hall.
To refer to Dr. Kirkland Hall a baseball historian might be a bit unfair to him. Strictly speaking, Dr. Hall is not a historian. That is, it’s not his trained profession. He is a trained educator, specifically physical education. His interest in athletics grew out of his love and experience playing baseball on the Eastern Shore.
(I’d like to mention here that there is far more to Dr. Hall’s expertise than baseball. His impact on his local community, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and Maryland as a whole is significant. This is particularly true for matters of social justice. That isn’t what this episode was about, but his impact is worth mentioning, even in passing.)
As I began to research the Negro Leagues I discovered that just like everything else when it comes to black history in America, the term “Negro Leagues” isn’t as cut and dry of a topic as I thought.
Before I did my research, I made the assumption that the Negro Leagues operated much like Major League Baseball, with a strong structure of Major Negro Leagues with a minor league system of some sort. But you know, on a smaller scale.
I was wrong.
It wasn’t as simple as that.
I first considered looking into the Negro Leagues for a podcast episode back in December 2020 when Major League Baseball finally ruled to include Negro League records with Major League records. According to the MLB website, here’s why:
“Telling the story of baseball in America in the first decades of the 20th Century while only using the names of stars like Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby and Joe DiMaggio is indeed only telling half the story. For while Major League Baseball powered on as America’s favorite sport through the turn-of-the-century, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression and World War II, an equally talented and equally entertaining league – if not more so, in the eyes of some – was also thrilling fans in many of the same ballparks.
Black Americans have played the National Pastime since it first spread across the country like wildfire during the Civil War,”
When it comes to Negro League play on the Eastern Shore, it’s difficult to garner first-hand information about games.
Before I continue, I want to give credit where credit is due. Much of what you will read below was provided for me in an email from Mr. Marty Payne. Marty is on the board for the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame. He was a wealth of information, and I’m not going to even pretend that a lot of what I’m sharing with you isn’t word-for-word information he provided for me. So thank you, Mr. Payne.
Now, the first known newspaper account of black baseball on the shore is in 1875 with the Cambridge Odd-fellows v. Seaford.
The fact is, rural newspaper coverage of the Negro Leagues is scarce and brief, largely consisting of simple scores, providing no accounts of the game play, or even names of the players.
By the early 1900’s every African American community, enclave, or district had their own team. They played mainly on Sundays and holidays. Baseball was a social event with picnics and parties after the double headers.
From the standpoint of an official league that I might have been looking for when I began to look into the Negro Leagues, the Major Negro Leagues formed in the 1920’s with teams forming in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. These teams made extra money playing exhibitions in neighboring regions – including Delmarva.
One game in 1925 featured the Harrisburg Giants and the Baltimore Black Sox. Each team had legends on their roster with Harrisburg featuring Hall-of-Famer Oscar Charleston who was known as the black Ty Cobb. Baltimore featured Hall-of-Famer Jud Wilson who hit over .400 four times.
It’s been reported that a black Eastern Shore League formed in 1932. The Afro American Newspaper reports that Crisfield and Bellevue of teams in a black Eastern Shore League in 1925. There was an 8-team Bi State League in 1934 with two teams in Delaware.
The Tri County League was reported in 1936 encompassing the mid-shore, including the Bellevue All-stars, the Denton Tigers, teams from St. Michaels, Easton, and others. Other strong teams of the era included the Cambridge Orioles, Crisfield Giants and the Carmichael Speedboys.
From 1939 to 1941 Negro League exhibitions on the Eastern Shore become more frequent. There was no Negro League world series in 1939. After a game in Salisbury between the Baltimore Elite Giants and the Philadelphia Giants, the game scheduled for the next night in Federalsburg was billed as the unofficial Negro Leagues championship.
Among the National Hall of Fame players listed on the rosters of the Negro League teams that toured the Shore include Oscar Charleston, Jud Wilson, Roy Campanella, Biz Mackey, Leon Day, Monte Irvin, and Mule Suttles. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any newspaper coverage of game results, so we can only assume these players appeared at this time.
Though not listed in that group of players, there was another Hall of Fame player I want to mention. His name is Judy Johnson.
Judy Johnson was a third baseman inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975. His plaque in Cooperstown reads:
“Considered the best third baseman of his day in Negro Leagues. Outstanding as a fielder and excellent clutch hitter who batted over .300 most of his career. Helped Hilldale team with three flags in a row, 1923-24-25. Also played for 1935 Champion Pittsburgh Crawfords.”
But, most important for our purposes, before he did all that…before he did anything really, in 1899, Judy Johnson was born in Snow Hill, MD, on the Delmarva Peninsula.
Remember when I said by the 1900’s every black community or enclave had their own team? Dr. Hall played on one of those community teams, the Oaksville Eagles.
Though Jackie Robinson officially broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when he started for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, integration throughout the rest of the baseball leagues in the country occurred at different times, and was particularly slow on Delmarva. This was clear as I listened to Doctor Hall talk about his experience playing for the Eagles.
Listen to the Delmarva’s Own podcast episode wherever you get your podcasts or by clicking here.