As always, February was Black History Month, and cable channels were populated with appropriate stories and historical notes. I enjoyed several offerings from the sports arena, some of which were totally new to me while others rekindled memories and added detail.
One that had totally escaped me was the saga of Fritz Pollard, a talented and well educated Black who both played and coached in the National Football League in the 1920’s. The league continued with few Black players until 1934 and then there were none for the next dozen years. There were no more Black head coaches until 1989. Pollard died in 1986 and made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. Fritz Pollard’s name is worth a Google search. His business career after football is something special.
Here’s a name that had a delayed major role in Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball in 1947. Charles Thomas was Ohio Wesleyan’s catcher when the team made a road trip to Notre Dame in 1903. The African American was initially denied entry to OWU’s South Bend hotel until coach Branch Rickey suggested that Thomas room with him. The catcher was devastated by his treatment.
Rickey never forgot the incident and it helped motivate him to bring Robinson to the big leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers 44 years later. It’s fascinating how the iconic baseball executive became Ohio Wesleyan’s coach. He was a player who was still in school but lost his eligibility by performing in a summer pro league. When the coaching job opened, Branch was selected to run the team. He graduated in 1904. The catcher got his diploma in 1905 and later became a successful dentist in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Dr. Charles Thomas and Branch Rickey were lifelong friends.
The “Battling Bishops” have played basketball in Branch Rickey Arena since 1976. Thanks to retired Sidney attorney and OWU grad Harry Faulkner, I’ve been there many times.
Negro Leagues Museum
Imagine a time when baseball drew the best athletes, and the top Black performers were relegated to segregated leagues. The result was the very high level of play in the Negro Leagues. That grouping did business from 1920 into the 1950’s and is celebrated at the Negro Leagues Museum in downtown Kansas City. I visited there several years back and loved the experience.
The facility is easy to traverse and has fabulous displays that depict the players, characters, owners, nicknames, amazing performances, inconvenient travel, heavy wool uniforms, primitive equipment, and much more. Among many others, I learned about the legendary “Double Duty” Radcliffe who earned his moniker by pitching one game and catching the other in separate doubleheaders on the same day.
If I get back to KC, I’ll make a return trip. It’s a blemish on our country that the Negro Leagues became necessary but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be remembered and cherished.
Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave Ross has contributed to the Sidney Daily News since 1975.