Swinging for the Fences: Black Baseball in Minnesota


From the early formation of barnstorming teams that toured the state to the moment Dave Winfield hit number three thousand, Minnesota's African American ball players have made the state a land of baseball. However, the stories of many black players parallel the larger struggle for civil rights. Those tales, collected here for the first time, show how teamwork on and off the field led first to acceptance, then to admiration and triumph. Swinging for the Fences is the first collection to highlight the thrilling and...

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From the early formation of barnstorming teams that toured the state to the moment Dave Winfield hit number three thousand, Minnesota's African American ball players have made the state a land of baseball. However, the stories of many black players parallel the larger struggle for civil rights. Those tales, collected here for the first time, show how teamwork on and off the field led first to acceptance, then to admiration and triumph. Swinging for the Fences is the first collection to highlight the thrilling and controversial landmarks in the history of black baseball in the North Star State. Award-winning author Steven R. Hoffbeck assembled a stellar team of writers—and baseball fanatics—to tell the great stories of black baseball's past, from establishment of the color lines to dazzling hits by black heroes that led the Twins to victory over the Cardinals in '87. Each chapter focuses on one key player, and through these windows into their lives and livelihoods, their plays and passions, readers get an intimate look at the national pastime as it has evolved over the last century and more. Featured here are Hall of Famers like Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, and Kirby Puckett and great players like Walter Ball, John Wesley Donaldson, and Bud Fowler, who, because of their race, never made the stats books. These are stories of the bonds that formed between players, of legendary moments in baseball's past, and of real people whose love of the game kept them playing against tough odds.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780873515177
  • Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2005
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 531,104
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven R. Hoffbeck is a history professor at Minnesota State University—Moorhead and the author of The Haymakers: A Chronicle of Five Farm Families (Minnesota Historical Society Press), which won the Minnesota Book Award in 2001. A lifelong fan of America's game, he lives in Barnesville, Minnesota. Contributors include: Dan Cagley, Teri Ann Finneman, Ted Genoways, Peter Gorton, William D. Green, Jim Karn, Kwame McDonald, Kyle McNary, Joel A. Rippel, and Jay Weiner.

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Swinging for the Fences
Black Baseball in Minnesota

Minnesota Historical Society Press
Copyright © 2005

Minnesota Historical Society
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87351-517-7

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: The Brotherhood of Baseball 000 They Didn't Want to Play with Fisher 000 William D. Green Prince Honeycutt and the Fergus Falls Musculars 000 Bud Fowler and the Stillwater Nine, 1884 000 Dan Cagley The Quicksteps Duel the Brown Stockings, 1887 000 Drawing the Color Line on Walter Ball, 1890-1908 000 Jim Karn Opposing the Color Line in Minnesota, 1899 000 Bobby Marshall, the Legendary First Baseman 000 Steven R. Hoffbeck Barnstorming Teams, 1909-1920 000 John Wesley Donaldson, a Great Mound Artist 000 Peter W. Gorton The Mystery of Lefty Wilson 000 Peter W. Gorton Maceo Breedlove: Big Fish in a Small Pond 000 Kyle McNary A Negro League Team in Minnesota, 1942 000 Roy Campanella and the Breaking of the Color Barrier 000 Ted Genoways Willie Mays with the Minneapolis Millers, 1951 000 Satchel Paige: Barnstorming in Minnesota 000 Steven R. Hoffbeck Jackie Robinson Visits Minnesota, 1955 000 Toni Stone: A Tomboy to Remember 000 Teri Ann Finneman Barnstorming Black Teams: The End of an Era 000 Earl Battey and the Integration of Spring Training 000 Kwame McDonald and Steven R. Hoffbeck Bobby Darwin: Escape from Watts 000 Joel A. Rippel Dave Winfield: Making a Name for Himself 000 Kwame McDonald and Steven R. Hoffbeck Lyman Bostock, Jr.: Death of an Outfielder 000 Kirby Puckett: All Player All the Time 000 Jay Weiner Appendix: Rosters of All-Black Teams 000 Notes 000 List of Contributors 000 Acknowledgments 000 Index 000

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2006

    Swinging For The Fences is nostalgic walk through baseball history

    Steve Hoffbeck and his group of baseball historians have compiled an amazing history of black baseball players in Minnesota. This book is personal look at the lives of many incredible athletes but most importantly is an historical account of their struggle with civil rights and their eventual acceptance as athletes and people. As a young child growing up in northern Minnesota in the late 1950's, I can recall the novelty of a black baseball team coming to our community to play our local town team. We were awestruck by their presence and their tremendous skill and athleticism. This book gives the reader a glimpse as what these players experienced traveling throughout Minnesota. A chapter that I particulary enjoyed was sportwriter Jay Weiner's 'rags-to-riches' story of Kirby Puckett. Kirby is undoubtedly the most admired and respected athlete in the history of Minnesota sports. He impacted all of Minnesota in a way that people who do not live here can understand. From our oldest citizens to our pre-school children, Kirby was an icon. His rise from poverty to Baseballs Hall of Fame is a tribute to the spirit of this man. 'Swinging For The Fences' not only gives you an appreciation for the struggles and triumphs of these men, but also educates you on how far our society has come in battling prejudice and the realization that there is much more work to done.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2005

    Swinging For The Fences is a Home Run!

    When one thinks of 'black' baseball, an image of Jackie Robinson trying to break the Major League Baseball color barrier with the Dodgers comes to mind. About the last thing one would expect is to associate the lily-white state of Minnesota with black bseball, yet, in this intrigingly interesting book, Dr. Steve Hoffbeck shows how many other black baseball players suffered the same struggles as Jackie Robinson, their stories being told for the first time. Dr. Hoffbeck has assembled a team of 11 writers to tell the detailed story of black baseball players in Minnesota that begins in the late 19th century and ends with sad story of the fallen hero Kirby Puckett. This is not a book that revels in baseball statistics rather, the writers focus on the players themselves: who they were, where they came from, the color barrier conflicts each had to face, and what happened to them after baseball. It is this personalized approach that grabs the mind of the reader, and makes this book so interesting. The book is divided into 24 concise chapters, each centered on a particular black baseball player or team. My favorite player chapters were as follows: 1. Earl Batty and his attempt to bring racial equality to the southern 'plantation' owner of the Minnesota Twins, Calvin Griffith. 2. Satchel Paige's baseball barnstorming days in Minnesota. I am amazed with the pure pitching genius of 'Ol Satch, and how he was not allowed to compete against white major league baseball players until he was 42 years old in 1948. Even at that age (Paige being the oldest rookie to ever play major league baseball), Paige amazed the fans, his teammates, every batter he faced, and even the umpires with his amazing throwing skills. What a shame a man like Paige was denied his chance to excel at his first love while in his prime - just think of how the record books would look if Paige pitched 20-plus seasons in the major leagues! 3. Toni Stone, the first black woman (or any woman of any color for that matter) to attempt to pitch at the major league level. 4. The chapter on the tragic story of Kirby Puckett, the first black Minnesota baseball superstar, who had the fans of Minnesota in his back pocket, and then lost it all to allegations of spousal abuse and infidelity. Minnesota has never gotten over the fall of their hero Puckett and we lament to this day the sad ending to his stellar career. The above chapters are only my personal highlights of what has come together as an excellent book on black baseball. Other chapters deal with lesser known black players in Minnesota, yet, the themes of persistence through intense racial persecution and taunting, the shared black brotherhood of baseball, and the sacrifices these men went through to pursue their love of the game shine through. Hoffbeck and fellow writers have contributed a vital link to the previously untold 'missing' history of black baseball. This book should be in the collection of anyone who loves the game of baseball, for it documents the early pioneers of black baseball, and shows the heavy financial and emotional price the players had to pay to seek their places in the game of baseball. Modern-day black baseball players owe a debt of gratitude to these early pioneers, for it was their superior abilities, pride, and persistence that finally brought down the long-standing nearly impregnable racial barrier of American baseball. Cudos to Hoffbeck and Company for telling their compelling stories. Jim Konedog Koenig

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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    African-American baseball stars and teams of Minnesota

    Twenty-three articles by a variety of authors, mostly college professors and journalists, cover the different facets of black baseball in Minnesota from its first days in the latter 1800s down to contemporary times. The general theme running through all of the diversified articles is the 'America Dream' and the 'American Tragedy' reflected in the histories of the teams and the careers and lives of individual players. The American Dream part of the theme deals with how playing baseball allowed players to strive for high personal achievement as well as enjoy various levels of economic security and social recognition. The American Tragedy part takes in not only the racism and discrimination players faced, but also personal troubles and disappointments of some of them. Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Willie Mays appear along with many relative unknowns. The exploits of teams named the Fergus Falls Musculars, the Quicksteps, and the Brown Stockings, among others, are related. The vibrant Minnesota black baseball scene going back well over a century is treated in a popular style profiling great and other notable players and following the courses, and occasional dramatic moments, of the teams.

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