The Kansas City Royals are atop the entire baseball world after recently winning their first World Series in 30 years. The championship extends a tradition of the sport in the city that was the birthplace of the Negro Leagues in the first half of the twentieth century.
Arkansas sport commentator Evin Demirel explores the impact of one all-black baseball team of that era whose reach stretched from Arkansas to Montana, and from the diamond to the basketball court.
Kansas City was once at the center of a segregated black baseball world stretching for thousands of miles. From the Midwest, through the Southern states out to the West Coast and as far north as the Plains states. It pretty well explains why a pipeline of talent formed between Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and, of all places, Butte, Montana.
A century ago this Rocky Mountain boomtown had attracted hordes of copper and gold miners from all over the U.S. and the world -- Mexico, China, Syria. Businessmen like baseball lover Frank Yamer also showed up to make these guys’ lives just a little less rough.
Yamer owned a black night club which sponsored a local all-black baseball team. They called themselves the Butte Colored Giants and they stepped far out from the norms of that time. They played almost exclusively all-white teams. And, there's an interesting Arkansas connection to this whole story because it's thanks to many Arkansans they usually won.
The Montana mini exodus starts in the 1910s as a trickle - three Arkadelphian brothers, the McKinleys, and their brother-in-law, Girlie Fenter. It escalates with another Arkadelphian, “Stack” Spearman, two local league championships and by the time the mid-1930s roll around we have a full fledged flood.
At least 16 Arkadelphians in all hopped into their cars to motor the more than 1700 miles to Butte and play for the Colored Giants. Three of them all came from a single family, the Spearmans, a group that produces six pro baseball players in all.
On the field, the players were often the center attraction. Especially after they won another city league championship and entry into the eight-team Montana State League as the only black squad.
But the crowds? They expected to watch more than just a ballgame. You see most barnstorming black teams of this era had more talent than the local teams they played, so almost all black teams who played against white teams used comedy as insurance against racial confrontation. You’d see this in a variety of ways like “shadow ball” right before games when players would toss an imaginary ball to each other. They’d use pantomimed pitching, catching and hitting to bring chuckles from the crowds. They won't get mad at you if you’re making them laugh, right?
The Colored Giants’ run ends in 1940 with one last, unsuccessful attempt to get the ol’ boys together. Many of the former players scattered to the winds, a few stayed in Butte, and a few returned home.
One of the returnees, a guy named Arthur Ellis, heads to El Dorado and there he manages his own team. He teaches his Black Lions what he learned in Montana about entertaining a crowd, and one particularly apt pupil - Reese “Goose” Tatum - goes on to take those lessons to level never seen before. As the lead performer and star attraction of the world famous Harlem Globetrotters, you could say Tatum pretty much became a Giant all his own.
Evin Demirel is a freelance journalist reporting on sports and society in the South. You can find his work at BestOfArkansasSports.com.
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