Baseball in Kalamazoo: Black Teams

“The Browns defeated the Excelsiors yesterday on the college campus by a score of 19 runs, 25 base hits and 1 error, to 2 runs, 2 hits and 15 errors. Charles Townsend pitched for the Browns.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 April 1889

Kalamazoo’s Early African American Baseball Teams

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Kenneth Bass and Neal Davis, c.1910
WMU Archives & Regional History Collections

From as early as 1877 or before, Kalamazoo’s leading African American baseball players were forming independent teams and successfully squaring off against other local and regional clubs, both white and black. Little is known about the earliest of these teams, but by the mid-1880s, we do know that Kalamazoo’s top all-black team was traveling regularly, and competing against other independent clubs from Kalamazoo, Oshtemo, Battle Creek, and Niles. The 1886 Kalamazoo team featured Dave Morgan at first base, Gilmore Phillips at second base, Sylvester Phillips at third, Joshua Phillips in center field, John Morgan at shortstop, Van Deusen in left field, Tom Bolden in right field, Jones catching, and Bryce pitching, plus Perry Williams, Albert Phillips, Lincoln Moss, and A. Hoyt as alternates.

Kalamazoo Browns

In December 1887, “the color line was drawn” (Gazette) when league owners voted to prohibit African American players from participating in the Ohio State League (Tri-State League), of which Kalamazoo’s professional state league team was a part. While it’s reasonably certain that no Kalamazoo players were directly impacted by the decision (there were no known African American players on the Kalamazoo state league team that year), Kalamazoo newspapers expressed dismay over the decision, and lamented the fact that several fine players from other teams in the league (including Sol White, who had close ties to West Michigan) would be forced to play elsewhere.

Come spring, African American players in Kalamazoo organized the Kalamazoo Browns, and enlisted William Manley as manager. The Browns’ roster included Sylvester Wairs at first base, George Bibbs at second, William Colts at third, Joshua Phillips at shortstop, Sylvester Phillips in left field, Henry White in center field, Frank Evans in right field, and Edward McKay pitching, with James White and Perry Williams catching. The team concentrated on local opponents at first, such as the South Eagles, the Y.M.C.A. Outings, and Kalamazoo College, before eventually taking on teams from neighboring towns like Augusta, Niles and South Haven. Thanks to some successful fundraising efforts, the Kalamazoo Browns were able to begin the 1889 season in fine style with new uniforms that featured striped shirts, gray pants, and black stockings. Clarence McGibney was team manager and Charles Townsend was captain, with Mills, Doubleday, and McAllister pitching, Dennison at first base, Sterne at second, Dasher at third, Gerow at shortstop, Ramsen and Smith in the outfield, and Despenett and Henshaw catching. The Browns remained active in one form or another through the 1894 season.

Excelsior Base Ball Club

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Frank Wilson, c.1894
WMU Archives

In the spring of 1889, the Excelsior Base Ball Club announced its arrival, and immediately challenged the “high school Browns” to a series of games. The Excelsiors were managed by Ed McKay (who was also secretary), with W.H. Robbins treasurer, and A. Bass as team captain. Robbins was stationed at first base, Bass at second, W. Myers at third, Geo. Harrigan and John Phillips at shortstop, Gabe Green in left field, Henry White in centerfield, and Frank Wilson in right field. P.S. Williams was catcher, and Billy Coats was pitcher.

In 1890, the Excelsiors took on the Y.M.C.A. team and Dr. Wilbur’s nine, and claimed victory three out of four times against the high school team with Coats, Bolden and Stewart pitching, and Myers, Williams and Byrd catching. After reorganizing in 1891 with Frank Evans as manager and William Stewart as captain, the Excelsior club took on other local teams like the West End club and the Liners.

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The Page Fence Giants pose for a promotional photo at John Ball Park in Grand Rapids, c. 1895
MLBlogs Network

The Page Fence Giants

The Page Fence Giants were among the premiere African American teams in the United States during the 1890s, and were a tremendously popular attraction wherever they played. Sponsored by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company of Adrian, Michigan, the Page Fence Giants barnstormed across the Midwest during the 1895-98 seasons in their own custom built railroad touring car, and wreaked havoc on professional and independent baseball clubs throughout the region. The Kalamazoo Telegraph called the Giants “the strongest colored team in the world.” In 1897 alone, the Giants boasted a 125-12 record, including an 82-game winning streak.

“Nine chocolate colored ball players, traveling under the name of the Page Fence Giants, in a private car, have been making a tour of the central states, demonstrating to the Western, National and minor league ball players that the latter knew nothing of how the game should be played. St. Paul, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, Dubuque and others had succumbed to African muscle and brains, and yesterday Kalamazoo’s scalp was added to the already big stock of cappilaceous relics... (the Giants) rubbed the rich celery earth of the league grounds deep into the hides of the local players...”

Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph, 16 May 1895

In May 1895, the Page Fence Giants rolled into Kalamazoo for the first time to begin a best-of-three series against the state league Kazoos at the North Street ballpark, and true to form, they beat the local team rather badly in the process. “The [third] game was a hot one from the start,” stated a reporter for the Telegraph, “and although it went deservedly to the hard hitting visitors, it was by all odds the prettiest one put up here this season.” A year later, the state league had collapsed, but the Giants returned to Kalamazoo for a rematch against the (then) independent Kazoos at the Lake View Park ball field near Woods Lake. According to the Kalamazoo Gazette, the Giants “made monkeys” of the 1895 league team, but only managed to top the 1896 Kazoos by a single run in an exciting see-saw battle.

Unions & Stars

The Kalamazoo Unions

After the Browns came a new pair of tough Kalamazoo teams, the Kalamazoo Unions and the Kalamazoo Stars, both organized about 1895. The semi-pro Unions featured Rose at first base, Cousins at second, Stewart at third, Hackley at short stop, Myers in left field, Bolden in center field, and Boyd in right field, plus Ogglesby pitching and Williams behind the plate. The team remained active for several years against rival teams from Niles, Battle Creek and Benton Harbor.

“The ‘Kalamazoo Star’ baseball team hereby challenge the Wheel Works so-called team, to play them a game of ball next Saturday afternoon at Lake View. This early notice is given in order that the Wheel Works crowd can get the wheels out of their heads and be prepared to play ball.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 June 1897

The Kalamazoo Stars

The Kalamazoo Stars (often referred to as the “Kalamazoo Colored Stars”) grew out of a rugged sandlot team known as Bert Hackley’s nine. Hackley was a local barber, who quickly made a name for himself around the Kalamazoo area as a baseball player, a competitive bicyclist, a showman and a fighter. In 1898, the independent Stars brazenly pursued other teams from home and “abroad,” including the Kalamazoo Victors, the Kalamazoo Red Stockings, Rose’s Rough Riders, the team from Oshtemo, and the team from Cooper Township. The Stars “battery” (19th-century baseball lingo for the pitcher/catcher duo) included catcher Dave Perry and pitcher H. Bolden, with Bert Hackley at shortstop, Robert “Bob” Hackley in center field, Lester Bolden at third base, Elmer Bolden in left field, Clarence Outland in right field, Foster Meyers at second base, and George Tillman at first. The Stars were full of 19th century baseball moxy, openly challenging any and all other teams in the city, including the Victors and the semi-pro Unions.

Sam Folz Colored Giants

In April 1899, local players gathered at the Odd Fellow’s Hall and reorganized the Kalamazoo Stars, with William Stewart as the new team captain and manager. The roster that year would include Bert Hackley, James Bell, Foster Meyers, George Tillman, Lester Bolden, Dave Perry, Walter Jackson, Elmer Bolden, Robert Hackley, William Stewart, Clarence Outland, William “Willie” Hackley, and L.L. Gilbert. The team was officially dubbed the “Colored Stars.”

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Hiram “Hi” Wilson, c.1894
WMU Archives

 

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Fred VanDyke, c.1897

Local entrepreneur Sam Folz took over sponsorship of the Stars in May, and named his new semi-pro team the “Big Corner” after his downtown Kalamazoo clothing store. But the Folz “Big Corner” team was soon rebranded as the Sam Folz Colored Giants, most likely to capitalize on the success of other contemporary African American “Giants” of baseball; the Cuban Giants (1885), the Columbia Giants (1899), and of course, the Page Fence Giants. Hiram “Hi” Wilson, a feisty thirty-year-old local sign painter and a clerk at the Folz clothing store, was recruited to manage the Folz team, C.E. Waters was brought in from Fort Wayne to pitch, and several former members of the famous Page Fence Giants were hired, including Fred Taylor and William “Will” Bird, catchers; Fred VanDyke, second base; Charles Smith, first base; and William McCullough, substitute. Members of the previous year’s Kalamazoo Stars completed the new lineup, including pitcher William Stewart, second baseman Lester Bolden, shortstop Bert Hackley, right fielder Robert Hackley, centerfielder Duce Bell, third baseman Foster Meyers, and left fielder Elmer Bolden.

The Folz Giants opened the 1899 season in June by challenging the Kalamazoo High School team and the clerks from Folz’ “Big Corner” clothing store, but success was slow coming. By mid-summer, however, the Folz Giants were on the road, barnstorming their way across Michigan and Indiana with brand new black uniforms, battling teams from Niles, Fort Wayne, South Bend, Kokomo, Elkhart, Dowagiac, and Otsego.

The following year, Sam Folz shifted his primary sponsorship to a completely different (all-white) team, which then joined a newly formed amateur city league in Kalamazoo. Though they were no longer on the road, Folz did keep his former Giants active through the 1900 season, by occasionally taking on local and regional teams with a familiar roster of players; Schultz, Myers, Johnson, Whaling, Wilson, Outland, Stewart, the Hackley brothers, and manager Frank Evans.

Kalamazoo Americans

By 1901, Sam Folz had parted ways with the Giants and was dedicating his team sponsorship efforts entirely toward the Kalamazoo City League. In the meantime, several of the previous Folz Giants had formed a new African American team known as the Kalamazoo Americans, with W. T. Lewis as manager. Bert Hackley was again team captain, J. VanDyke was catcher, Stewart and Johnson were pitchers, L. Brinn was at first base, Lester Bolden was at third base, W. Stone at shortstop, Foster Meyers in left field, William Hackley in center field, T. VanDyke in right field, plus Clarence Outland and Jasper Boyd as substitutes. Kalamazoo teams called the Americans, and subsequently the Junior Americans, carried over well into the 20th century.

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Continuing Research

Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it may be viewed as a work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.

Sources

Books

Baseball Fever: Early Baseball in Michigan

  • Morris, Peter.
  • 2003
  • ISBN: 0472098268
  • University of Michigan Press

Minor League Baseball Towns of Michigan: Adrian to Ypsilanti

  • Okkonen, Marc.
  • 1997
  • ISBN: 1882376439
  • Thunder Bay Press

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

  • Nelson, Kadir.
  • 2008
  • ISBN: 9780786808328
  • Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children. New York

Articles

“Base Ball”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 September 1886, p. 4 

“Base Ball”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 December 1887, p. 4 

“Sporting Matters”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 April 1889, p. 2 

“Base Ball. The Browns Will Wear Suits”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 April 1889, p. 2 

“Jottings.”

  • Kalamazoo Morning Gazette, 11 April 1899, p. 4 

“The colored Stars.”

  • Kalamazoo Morning Gazette, 12 April 1899, p. 1 

“Lose the First Game”

  • Kalamazoo Morning Gazette, 7 June 1899, p. 1 

“Here Are The Players”

  • Kalamazoo Morning Gazette, 16 July 1899, p. 1 

“Colored Nine Wins Sunday”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 June 1918, p. 7

Websites

Local History Room Files

History Room Subject File: Baseball.