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Swinging for the Fences
Black Baseball in Minnesota
Minnesota Historical Society Press
Copyright © 2005
Minnesota Historical Society
All right reserved.
Chapter One They Didn't Want to Play with Fisher
William D. Green
In 1875, W. W. Fisher was the flash point for all kinds of tales. The people in Winona said that although the ballplayer had come from Chicago, he had a regular job in town that made him eligible to play for the Winona Clippers ballclub. Jealous folks in nearby towns called him an interloper from out of state. There were rumors that he might be a professional player on what was supposed to be an amateur team. It was said that he had played for the Chicago Uniques, a black team; therefore, the St. Paul team did not want to play against the Clippers if Fisher was on the field. The St. Paulites were attempting to draw the color line on Fisher.
By the conclusion of the Clippers' season, the townspeople called Fisher a "state champion" as a pitcher and second baseman. Sadly more tales were then told about Fisher, and he was run out of town as a "traitor" who had allegedly "fixed" a game and betrayed his town and team.
This is the story of W. W. Fisher, the first prominent black baseball player in Minnesota, a tale set in the time just ten years after the Civil War had ended. It is a tale obscured by the passing of time and by the fact that the man was referred to only as "Fisher" in published game reports; we do not know his whole given name, only his initials-"W. W."
Winona, a Mississippi River town, was one of the prominent cities in Minnesota in 1875, being the third largest after St. Paul and Minneapolis. It had a population of 10,737, of whom seventy-eight were black. Known as a transport point for shipping wheat down the mighty Mississippi, it was also a destination for steamboats coming upriver from St. Louis. Farmers from all over southeastern Minnesota brought their wheat crops to Winona to the flourishing flour mills there.
Winona's amateur baseball team had not yet matched the city's prominence, but the Clippers were having a good season, winning seven games and losing only three from June 3 until August 13. They had clobbered the Firemen's team 61 to 14, smoked the St. Charles Suckers by a count of 46 to 20, and chewed up the Beaver and Plainview ballclub 36 to 2. But the team had lost to the Silver Stars of Northfield, one of the earliest teams organized in Minnesota and known as one of the best ballclubs around. Most of all, the Winona management wanted to beat Northfield, and a second game versus Northfield brought a better result, with Winona winning 24 to 22. Another great challenge came from across the border in Wisconsin in the form of the Janesville Mutuals, a professional team and champions of Wisconsin. After losing an August ballgame to the Mutuals by a score of 21 to 14, the Clippers procured the services of W. W. Fisher as their pitcher for a rematch on August 14.
In the game against the Janesville Mutuals, Fisher's performance was note-worthy. "Fisher's pitching won admiration from all sides," wrote a newsman, "his balls were hard to bat and hardly any of them got outside the diamond." The Clippers had been "strengthened by putting Fisher in at pitcher," and in his first game with the team, Winona won 13 to 7.
The Clippers' defeat of the Northfield and Janesville teams gave Winona the best record in Minnesota and thus the state championship. Their success attracted the attention of the well-established St. Paul Red Caps baseball team. In the tradition of the time, the Red Caps sent an invitation to the Clippers to play against them in St. Paul at the Minnesota State Fair, laying out the terms of the contest. The teams were to compete for a $100 prize for the "winning club and $10 badges for best catcher, thrower, general player, and base runner." Winona was invited to play "but without the colored player."
Observers accused the St. Paul Red Caps of "running the tournament to suit themselves." The Winona players rejected the invitation and refused to play without their teammate. Commending them, the editor of their hometown newspaper wrote, "As Mr. Fisher, the colored person referred to, has been playing with the Clippers for some time past, and is not only an expert player, but a gentleman in his deportment, the [Clipper] boys, with commendable pluck and principle, proposed to stand by him."
Winona's management then drafted a letter to the officials of the State Fair Association stating that, while the Clippers wanted to play in St. Paul, they nonetheless needed to know if the rules, in fact, banned colored players from the tournament. Officials responded by declaring that no such rule existed and that only the competing clubs could determine whether or not Fisher played. Because the Red Caps did not want to play against Fisher, then Fisher's whole team would not attend the tournament. A newspaperman from Chatfield put the matter in crude terms: "The Clippers boys became indignant and refused to go, declaring their intentions to stand by their n-."
It appeared to many that the St. Paul ballclub was using racism as an excuse to avoid playing the state champion Clippers. A writer for the Winona Daily Republican observed, "As regards the position which the Red Caps has taken, it is shrewdly regarded as an evidence that they are afraid to play the Clippers, and resort to this method [of discrimination] to escape the doughty club that now carries the highest honors and the best record in the State."
As the date of the Clippers-Red Caps game grew near, tournament officials came to realize that racism was bad for business. The prospect of a showdown between Minnesota's top teams-Winona and St. Paul-would be a natural gate attraction. The controversy over the use of a black player might add to the number of baseball fans attending the contest; in fact, some onlookers might be interested in seeing if Fisher's pitching was noteworthy at all. The betting was bound to be prolific in a game that matched St. Paul as the "Northern metropolis against the Southern Metropolis [Winona] of the state" to see if the Winonans could prove to be "worthy of their bats."
Fortunately good sense prevailed. "Certain parties of St. Paul" contacted the Clippers "to see if anything could be done to alter the decision" to stay away from the tournament. The club responded by expressing two conditions that needed to be satisfied before they would play-the winning team would get a $100 prize and W. W. Fisher must be allowed to participate.
The conflict was soon resolved when a telegram arrived from St. Paul with words of agreement on the prize money totals and a brief line that informed the Clippers that they could "play Fisher if they wished." The party deemed responsible for this harmony was F. K. Merrill, a board member for the Red Caps and a well-remembered former resident of Winona. Indeed it was Merrill who succeeded in explaining away the insult to Fisher, the Clippers, and, therefore, the city of Winona itself:
Their opposition to Mr. Fisher [was] not being made on account of his being a colored man, but because they had understood that he was a professional player and had been set up in business in Winona for the purpose of playing with the Clippers. When satisfied that this view of the case was entirely erroneous they withdrew their opposition.
To clear the air further, the St. Paulites backtracked on "the statement which appeared in the Pioneer Press, namely that 'Red Caps object to the colored player, Fisher of Winona,' was premature and not authorized by the Board of Managers."
Fisher had found justice and prepared to play with his team in St. Paul; however, he faced insults from other directions in the meantime. Northfield played against Winona twice in early September 1875, and this marked Fisher's first appearance on Winona's home diamond against Northfield. It was "well understood" that Winona "proposed to play the colored member, Fisher," and most of the Northfield team engaged in contemptuous behavior that violated the hospitable and gentlemanly character of previous games. "As an insult to the club and to Mr. Fisher, the members of the [Northfield] Silver Stars-with the honorable exception, be it said, of [shortstop] Swerdfiger and the Bullis boys [the catcher Ed and the second baseman]-went to a crockery store" to buy a "number of little" Negro "babies" figures. The players then pinned the babies "to their badges" and then "marched through the public streets" of Winona prior to the start of the first game.
The initial game proved to be "disastrous" for Fisher's team when William H. Garlock, Winona's catcher, suffered an injury when struck on his left arm, "just above the elbow," as the opposing "batsman reached back" to swing his bat. It was a "hard blow, and disabled Garlock ... from further playing." Fisher was moved from pitcher to catcher because his team "had no competent catcher to fill the position." He tried his best, but because catching was done barehanded, his hands quickly became so sore that "he couldn't stand it," and Fisher went back to pitching. Frank L. Smith and Frank Lalor each tried catching, but they could not handle Fisher's pitches. Northfield got an "easy victory" over Winona by a score of 14 to 5.
In the second game, the playing by both sides "was exceedingly skillful and brilliant," and "every man of the Clippers played his position with skill and credit." In what was lauded as "the best amateur game in the Northwest," Winona emerged victorious in an 8-1 contest, evening the season series between the two clubs at two games apiece. Northfield's team admitted that Winona's pitcher, Frank L. Smith, and catcher (noted only as Mr. Doe) were "hard to beat," but asserted that the incompetent umpire was even harder to beat.
What really galled the Northfield players was that Frank L. Smith and Mr. Doe were imported players from the Janesville, Wisconsin, team. The Northfield newspaper contended that Fisher had also been brought in to Winona specifically for these games from the Chicago Uniques. The newspaperman admitted that while the "Negro babies" that the Northfield players wore on their badges were in "bad taste, they wanted to make a statement that "this colored man," Fisher, "did not [properly] belong to the club under the rules" of that time and should not have been in the two games at all.
Fisher, Smith, and Doe were all on the Winona roster for the big state fair tournament game against St. Paul on September 17. The injured man, Garlock, had recovered from his earlier mishap and was ready to play. The game was noted as the "prime attraction" at the state fair, and it was "hotly contested on both sides." At first the St. Paul Red Caps held a "decided advantage" over Winona's Clippers, but in the ninth inning, Winona tied the game at 17-all. In the tenth inning, St. Paul went to bat and "made five runs, and this, it was thought, could not be beaten." But the Winona team rallied and "managed to get seven runs, and so came in two ahead!" The final score stood at Winona 24, St. Paul 22. The Clippers took home the $100 prize and showed the rest of the state that they had "fairly won their honors" because they possessed "the skill and the pluck" to defeat their more-established rivals.
The state fair triumph ended the regular season for the Winona Clippers, and it was a year "marked with brilliant success" and a state championship. The record of the Clippers for 1875 was twelve wins and only four losses, and the players had made "great improvement" in their ball playing. The very best game of the season was said to be the 8 to 1 victory over the Northfield Silver Stars, and with it came bragging rights for the following season. The team disbanded for the year in mid-October, not having practiced since September 30.
If the story had ended there, it would have been a great and memorable season. But it did not. The St. Paul team issued a challenge to Winona for another game, and Frank L. Smith gathered the players together for one more matchup, this time on Winona's home field. The winning team would gain a prize of $100 and some bragging rights to carry over into the next year's baseball season.
The game was set to begin on Saturday afternoon, October 16, but the weather was uncooperative, with the temperatures described as being of a "chilly character." Despite the cold, a "large assemblage" of fans came to witness the second and final game between the Red Caps of St. Paul and the Winona Clippers. Local "interest in the game was intense," and numerous bets were wagered that day.
Frank L. Smith, who was managing the Winona nine and was to be the starting pitcher, became a focal point for controversy on the morning of the big game. An unknown source had circulated the rumor that Smith "had sold the game," and the report created a "decided sensation" in the downtown area. The whispers became a buzz, and Smith responded by insisting "that certain bets must be withdrawn or he would not go into the field." The bettors withdrew those key bets, and the game was on.
All went well for Winona in the early innings, with Winona leading five to zero at the end of the fourth. St. Paul inched back into the game, getting a run in the fifth and three in the sixth, while Winona scored single runs in the seventh and eighth. The score stood at 7 to 6 in favor of Winona until the fateful top half of the ninth inning. St. Paul scored two runs to pull into the lead 8 to 7, and, when Winona could not muster a run in the bottom of the ninth, St. Paul took the game and the $100 prize.
The St. Paul Red Caps celebrated the triumph, enlisting the aid of a touring band of Georgia minstrels, in blackface, to play for them in festive joy for several hours thereafter. It had been a "mighty victory," and the St. Paulites long remembered the celebratory march and laughed about how they had "joined forces with the minstrel band and let everybody in town know that they had won."
All was not joy in Winona, however. The "general talk" in town was that the hometown Clippers had "played well," but it was "freely admitted on all sides-that it was a 'thrown' game." The loss did not hurt so badly as the "conviction that there was treachery in their own camp." The general feeling grew that pitcher "Frank Smith [was] a partner and accomplice in the business" of throwing the game and pocketing some serious cash. It was plain to see that "Frank Smith's pitching for the first half of the game was capital," wrote a newsman, "but he made some bad errors in throwing to first and in the last part of the game pitched wild balls."
Suspicion arose among the public that there "was something rotten" in Winona, and the consensus was that second baseman W. W. Fisher was "a partner and accomplice" in the sellout of the game. Fisher had "played second well" in the game but committed "one or two errors in not stopping balls" hit his way.
Winona was buzzing with indignation over Smith's betrayal and Fisher's treachery in the week following the scandalous game. People in town heard allegations from many sources and came to a firm conclusion "that the game was manipulated in the interest of a lot of gamblers." Frank L. Smith responded to the flurry of accusations by cornering Fisher and inducing Fisher, after a day-long session of persuasion and intimidation, to write and sign an affidavit of guilt. Smith then accompanied Fisher to a notary public, who witnessed the sworn confession and notarized the document. Fisher reportedly made the affidavit "reluctantly."
Smith kept the official paperwork and made sure that Fisher left Winona. It was theorized that Fisher, "fearing that he would be mobbed" by some of the townspeople of Winona, took the "midnight train for Chicago." Smith waited a day and then released Fisher's confession to the newspapers. In the sworn statement, Fisher confessed all. It was he who agreed to "sell the game of ball" for $250 in cash. He stated that he was asked to enlist Frank Smith in the dirty business, but Smith "persistently refused so to do."
Excerpted from Swinging for the Fences
Copyright © 2005 by Minnesota Historical Society. Excerpted by permission.
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