Learning from legends: Woodbury man pens a chronology of black baseball in Minnesota
At age 9 or 10, Frank M. White started playing baseball. Every day, he would ask his dad to play catch.
"Sometimes he'd sneak in some heat," the Woodbury resident recalled of his father's throws. "I wanted to be a man like Dad, so I wouldn't say anything. But it hurt."
White's father, Louis "Pud" White, was one of the best African-American baseball players in the history of the sport in Minnesota, and this year White published a book, "They Played for the Love of the Game," about the state's great not-to-be-forgotten baseball teams, players and culture. His dad isn't the central figure in a book that delves into a dark past when people of one race weren't allowed to professionally play the game they loved, but Louis was a legend, one of the key local players during an era when the game changed for the better.
In the 1940s and '50s, Louis was part of a barnstorming culture in the sports of baseball and fastpitch softball. Weekends were spent traveling to the next town or state to take on a local nine. White tagged along as often as possible.
"I would intently watch," White said. "He would throw this way. I would throw that way. He would bat this way. I would bat that way. He would step out of the box, I would step out of the box. Today kids mimic the pros."
Now, young players watch the best players of the day on TV.
Then, White lived with one of them.
"He was one of those guys who could hit," White said.
In St. Paul, where White grew up, Louis hit .600 and won the batting title in 1946—White found the newspaper story to prove it, he said. "I tell people it's still a record today."
He won other local batting titles in Minneapolis and St. Paul's loose organizations of all-black play. White didn't even know until late in his father's life.
White watches "Field of Dreams," in which a father and son play catch in a magical cornfield ballpark, and cries.
"I can see him now," White said of Louis. "He was my hero."
Baseball and basketball
White, four years a Woodbury resident and the husband of a university professor, has enjoyed a 32-year career in recreation with the city of Richfield, as well as his 16th year as the owner of Respect Sports and the coordinator of the Minnesota Twins' RBI Program. He lives mere miles from Bielenberg Sports Center, where he can walk a dog and see a ballgame. But he still considers himself "a St. Paul guy," he said.
He grew up there, played ball there.
White went on to play shortstop and pitcher. His dad was a catcher.
"I could throw hard," he said.
White, though, chose basketball over baseball. His dominant team, the Pillsbury Kings, won a National Amateur Basketball Association championship in 1974.
White went on to be a basketball official and he still conducts officials clinics for the Minnesota State High School League.
"I still have a passion for officials, trying to make them better," he said.
White didn't exactly follow in his father's footsteps but he learned a love for the game of baseball.
Learning from a legend
Louis played for the Twin City Colored Giants, which existed from the 1930s to 1955.
In 1944, as a sophomore in high school, Louis joined the all-black team.
Louis was a junior in high school when his son, White, was born. So he didn't pursue a career in baseball.
All-conference in three sports, Louis was picked up by baseball and softball teams that needed a hitter. He'd take $25 or $50 a game.
By the time White was old enough to remember, Louis had switched to playing fastpitch softball on an all-black team in the Classic Leagues in St. Paul and eventually Minneapolis.
"They would barnstorm, and that's how they played because they weren't allowed in the leagues," White said. "I used to go watch them. I'd watch and play, and I love watching my dad play."
Beginning at age 16, White would join his dad's team on barnstorming tours—from Canada to Menomonie, Wis.—as the sixth man on the basketball team. In the 1960s, the players saw their share of racism—the N word on signs promoting the night's basketball game, cafes that closed when the African-American team arrived at the door, and worse. White learned to "take it," he said, because the team was interested in making money and if they raised an issue they wouldn't be asked back for the next game.
"Being on the road, you didn't know where you could stay, where you could eat, and where you could get gas," White said.
Jackie Robinson famously broke the color barrier in the big leagues in 1947, players began to sign pro contracts and disperse from the Negro Leagues, and the desegregation of the Twins was a welcome change in the mid-1960s. But great players got sent to the minor leagues because of an unspoken quota system in Major League Baseball, White said. Top prospects couldn't stand the Jim Crow laws and segregation they experienced and returned home to Minnesota. Others went to Cuba, where they were treated well, White said.
"I wanted to highlight the '40s and '50s as much as I could, because that was my dad's time," White said.
But he couldn't stop writing there. The book needed historical perspective. His research went back to the 1870s and through the 1960s.
White's book, a chronology of the sport in his home state, wasn't written with the intention of bringing up negatives, but he is willing to challenge people's beliefs about racism in Minnesota.
"The things we believe happened only in the South happened here," White said.
While there was no Negro Leagues team in Minnesota, White said: "I want everybody to know that we had black baseball here. It's not a white boy's game. Minnesota has a great legacy in baseball."
The book calls attention the state's great local black baseball teams, and readers of his book will hopefully appreciate history and learn to respect each other, White said.
Among St. Paul's best
White didn't know how good his father was—it never came up at home—until the 1990s, when Buck O'Neil, a former player and chairman of the board for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., greeted Louis at an event at the museum.
The great Buck O'Neil debated with other old-timers: If Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe ever faced Louis, would Radcliffe have to throw "Pud" a special pitch to get the out? The former Negro League players had a heyday with the hypothetical question, teasing Louis and also spilling the beans to White, who learned from Jim Robinson that Negro Leaguers used to try to recruit Louis to play.
At the event O'Neil, a player-manager for the Kansas City Monarchs and one of the most storied Negro League players, signed autographs and then immediately handed the baseballs to Louis to sign, too.
"All these guys, they tell me, 'Your dad was a great player,'" White said.
In 1999, Louis was named on a list of the 100 top male athletes of all time in the 100-year history of the St. Paul City Conference—a list that included White's father's name alongside Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield and Howie Schultz.
"He falls somewhere in the top 100 athletes, at least, in St. Paul," White said.
Adding to legacy
This month, at the Jerry Malloy Negro League Convention in Overland, Kan., White's book earned the Robert Peterson Recognition Award for bodies of work that raise public awareness of the Negro Leagues. The award is special, White said, because it is named for the man who wrote the definitive book on the Negro Leagues. White's research highlights part of Minnesota history that could have been lost without an author compiling the oral history and newspaper archives that draw attention to African-American involvement in baseball.
White has been involved in several historical exhibits, one of which is at Goodhue County Museum in Red Wing, Minn., through Sept. 11. He visited Red Wing on July 23 and will speak Sept. 8 at the Oakdale library.
"They Played for the Love of the Game," a 192-page book published by Minnesota Historical Society Press, sells for $19.95 as a paperback or $9.99 as an e-book. Dave Winfield wrote the book's foreward.
For more information go to minnesotablackbaseball.com or respectsports.com.