The Golden Age of black baseball

by Brian Clarey

Thomas Edison Alston rests on hallowed ground, six feet or so beneath a sepulcher on a hill beside the New Goshen Baptist Church, alongside generations of Alstons, Donnells, Shoffmans, Headens and Glovers. Etched into the fine granite of his tombstone is an encapsulated biography of the man: father, brother, son, soldier, athlete. This last is illustrated by two mournful cardinals resting on a baseball bat – Thomas Edison Alston was the first black man to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.

He was born and raised near this patch of sacred space known as Goshen, and during his life he saw the Golden Age.

It was the Jim Crow South, and life down here for a black man… well, it wasn’t exactly separate but equal. In the 1930s and ’40s, when Thomas Edison Alston was a boy, this was the “colored” section of town.

It would be 20 years or so before four students from NC A&T University took a stand at a downtown lunch counter. Slaves had been freed almost a hundred years previous, but still remnants of the system hung on. Reconstruction and segregation created neighborhoods like Goshen, African-American enclaves tucked into the corners of white society.

The children of Goshen – poor and pious – went to school up through ninth grade in little rooms next to this church on the hill, now called the New Goshen United Methodist Church. They sang choir in the chapel on Sundays. In the afternoons they played baseball on this abbreviated slip of lawn behind the Goshen church, a couple bats’ lengths away from where the grave of Thomas Edison Alston stands today. And back then, on Saturday afternoons, the whole black community would come out, from faraway neighborhoods like Mount Tabor, Stony Hill and Red Hill, to watch the Red Wings take on all comers.

“That was the only place people had to come, those evening games at Goshen,” remembers Martha Donnell, who grew up in the Goshen neighborhood during those years watching her father and brothers play baseball on the church grounds.

“It was nine of us,and my mother and father,” she says. “I’m the second oldest. We were raised right across Randleman Road. We were right on the ball field. I remember when I was maybe ten, twelve, we would go on Saturday afternoons and there would always be a baseball game. I would say hundreds of people. There would be early evening games and they would finish before dark. Always.

“They played ball, I think, from the time Goshen was discovered,” she continues. “I think it’s in everyone in this area’s bloodstream. They just grew up playing ball. That’s what they did.”

James Tonkins Jr. lives in the low green hills off highway 29 in the southeast part of the city. Goshen.

“This is my home, bred and born,” he says from a ladder-backed chair in a small room off his garage. He’s got a gruff voice, like a drill sergeant, gone a bit softer with age. There’s a bowl of pecans in the shell on a table next to him and two pairs of crutches lean against one wall along with a wheeled walker. There’s also a wheelchair, a motorized one, by the door to the garage.

Tonkins went through the Goshen School in the 1930s, graduated from Dudley High School in 1945 and even did a few years at NC A&T College. That was before he became a Red Wing.

“I actually went out for the team at A&T,” he says. “In my opinion, the coach didn’t give me much of a chance. But he had thousands of guys older than me who had been overseas, and here I was, a brash, bushy boy from out in the country. I had never been nowhere. I knew the Red Wings were getting ready to join a league, so I went out and tried for the Red Wings and made it, and played with them for four or five years.”

Tonk, as his teammates sometimes called him, joined the Red Wings in 1947, 12 years or so after the team became a somewhat official entity in 1935.

“I signed a contract for seventy-five dollars a week, three hundred a month,” he says. “I never will forget. We got paid every two weeks. That wasn’t bad in forty-seven. They maybe some fellas that signed for a hundred a week. Some of these guys had been in the service, played more baseball than me.”

James Tonkins Jr. was 17.

That same year John “Spud” Chandler, the 15-year-old curveball pitcher, and Clemente Varona, the phenom shortstop from Cuba, donned the flannel Red Wings uniform. “Jumping” Joe Siddle was back from his stretch with the Kansas City Monarchs, and Thomas Edison Alston held down first base.

“He could stretch a mile,” remembers Martha Donnell.

Two more Alstons, Gee and Shack, made up the starting battery.

“The team was made up of Alstons and Donnells and Ledwells,” Tonk recalls, “but there was a bunch of them Alston boys.”

“Now the Alston boys, it was a lot of those guys, and they could play ball. They could play ball,” Martha says. “Tom… Tom was our hero, even before he became a pro. Herman Taylor was handsome, of course, and a lot of females admired his looks. Edison Ledwell was our home run hitter. When you needed it most, he would come up to bat and nine times out of ten he would knock one out of the park.”

“I played second base, and I think I was the lead-off batter,” Tonk says. “I wasn’t very big, but I had a good eye. The ball had to be over the plate for me to swing at it. I was fast. They used to tell me, ‘You get on base. We don’t care of it’s a walk or a hit.’ And more than likely, depending on who was pitching, before the next out I was on second. I think I batted .280 or .300, but after that first year it was probably .325 or .330.”

For perspective, the top 100 all-time Major League Baseball batting leaders range in BA from .309 (Oyster Burns) to .366 (Ty Cobb). Tonk says records were kept in the Carolina League but the players were not eligible for the record books. Most of these stats have been lost in the ether of time.

Out in the Goshen schoolyard Martha remembers small huts behind the outfield where church members would sell vanilla ice cream for a dime and hot dogs for a quarter.

“I think you could get a five-cent bag of peanuts,” she recalls, “a little brown bag. We would take these cane-bottom chairs and put them out in the yard.”

In 1948 the Goshen Red Wings became the Greensboro Red Wings of the Carolina League and started playing their games in War Memorial Stadium, home of the all-white Greensboro Patriots.

Tonk says there was interaction between the two teams at the stadium and very little friction, except when it came to one thing.

“I knew a number of their players,” he recalls. “We tried to get a game with them, but they never would play us. We really wanted to play ’em, let the chips fall where they may, you know. I do think we played a white team. Was it the McCrary Eagles? Some textile company or something. They say that’s the night Norman Alston threw his arm out. There’s only twenty-seven outs in a game, and he must have struck out twenty men.”

“When we moved to the stadium, oh we felt like big-time then,” Martha remembers. “Going from field ball to playing in Memorial Stadium, you know, back then that was remarkable for a black team.”

Times, of course, were different.

In 1947 the war was over, and black Americans, particularly those who fought for their country overseas, wondered aloud about the paradox of freeing Europe while an underclass existed at home. Jim Crow was on his last legs.

This was the year that Branch Rickey unleashed a handsome and gifted athlete from Pasadena, Calif. – a black man named Jack Roosevelt Robinson, or “Jackie” to his friends – to play for his Brooklyn Dodgers after signing him in 1945.

Robinson went 0 for 3 his first Major League game on April 15, nearly 60 years ago to the day. He was called a “nigger” by fans in Philadelphia and heckled in Cincinnati but still managed to play 151 games that season and finish with a BA of .297 and enough stolen bases (29) to lead the National League. He won baseball’s first-ever Rookie of the Year Award that year, and Tonk and his own teammates followed the season avidly.

“We weren’t afraid for Jackie,” he recalls. “We were glad for him. I don’t think we had any doubts that he would make it.

“Oh Lord, yes,” he says, “I’ve heard it said that Jackie was not really the best black negro baseball player, but Mr. Rickey was looking beyond that. The principal reason Mr. Rickey chose Jackie, he had played football with white fellas on the football team.”

Tonk and his teammates had a long season of their own, playing against teams like the Winston-Salem Pond Giants and the Charlotte Black Hornets.

“The Asheville Blues,” he recalls, “they were in the Southern League, in that league with Birmingham and Atlanta.”

The Red Wings rode a team bus throughout the South for their league games, often making barnstorming stops in small towns and black churches and sometimes venturing as far north as New York, where the Red Wings once played a double header against the Bushwick Giants, a local team made up of ex-major leaguers.

“The first game they beat us five-three. The second we won two-nothing,” he remembers.

“Everywhere we went we had to go by bus,” he continues. “And when you were barnstorming, there was no telling what you’d run into. We’d stay at the YMCA or there might be an old boarding house. It’s been a number of times we’d go to a place, ride all night and half the day, yeah, we’d take a nap on the bus.

“I got quite an experience when we was out there,” he says. “I was seventeen, eighteen, nineteen; it was really the first time I had been away from home. We played a team in Bluefield, near Charleston in West Virginia. I got quite an experience when we was out there. The thing that was so fascinating for me in West Virginia, we started up this mountain about eight o’clock and we reached the top about midnight. I’d never seen such mountains.”

In most stops there were places, Tonkins says, for “colored folks” to go and find a room or get something to eat.

“Daddy Grace’s,” he remembers, “you could go in there for a dollar and eat all you could hold.”

And of course there was racism: snide remarks, hurtful words. And the time in Georgia when Tonkins says the team bus pulled up to the sheriff’s office and woke the lawman who was asleep on the porch.

“We asked him, you know, where the colored folks could eat. And he got up and pointed to a tree out in the field.

“‘The last nigger that came through hung out in that tree over there,’ he said. Of course, that was back in the forties. As far as physical, someone getting hurt, that never happened.”

He also got to play with legends like Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson, known back then as the “black Lou Gehrig” and the “black Babe Ruth,” respectively. This was during the summers between 1947 and 1949.

“At the end of the Major League season Jackie Robinson got a bunch of fellas together called the ‘Jackie Robinson All-Stars’ and they came through the South barnstorming,” Tonkins says. “Some kind of way he was booked down here in Greensboro. I played against Jackie, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe.”

Newcombe, the 6-foot-4 fastballer who joined the Dodgers in 1949, is still the only player ever to have won Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and the Cy Young award. Tonkins vaguely remembers facing him at the plate.

“I don’t remember whether I got a hit or a walk,” he says, “but I know I faced him.”

He remembers more clearly the first time he laid eyes on Jackie Robinson.

“I can see him walking down the street now,” he says. “And you talk about pigeon-toed. Looked like he was walking on his toes. I said, ‘No wonder he’s so fast.'”

When the Red Wings played an exhibition game against the Homestead Grays and the mighty Josh Gibson, Tonkins noticed while suiting up in the visitor’s locker room he was using the same locker as Joe DiMaggio, in town with the New York Yankees for a series against the Washington Senators,

“It was quite a thrill for me to play against those fellas,” he says.

And then, much faster than it started, the negro leagues began to fade.

“In forty-seven the attention was mostly on the Dodgers and Robinson,” Tonkins says. “After Robinson got with the Dodgers, interest in strictly black baseball and black leagues started declining. We still had good black teams and strong black leagues, but it began to wane and decline. After then, if you were gonna play baseball, you signed with the major leagues. We had a number of fellas who went to the Major Leagues.”

Larry Doby from South Carolina played for the Cleveland Indians in that year of 1947. Roy Campanella started with the Dodgers in 1948. By 1950 Hank Thompson, Monte Irvin and Sam Jethroe all had Major League contracts. The trickle became a flood.

Black teams found their best players getting picked off by the majors, and one by one the teams shut down. In 1958 the last negro league folded.

The baseball diamond still stands behind the New Goshen United Methodist Church, backed by a rusting cage and with an infield made of grass that’s spotted with bright dandelions. Left field is cut short by a ditch, but a shot to center or right field would have to carry a good bit to qualify as a homer.

The ground is sacred, infused with the remains of so many residents of Goshen – some who played the game and so many others who loved it. And baseball still holds a place in the heart of the Goshen community.

This year is the tenth anniversary of a memorial plaque that stands on the roadside commemorating the heroics of the Goshen Red Wings, an effort spearheaded by current embattled city councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small. Martha Donnell was there when it went up. Joe Siddle was there, and Norman Alston, Spud Chandler, Clemente Verona and Hubert Simmons. James Tonkins Jr. was there, too. They all autographed Donnell’s program, which she keeps in a box with newspaper clippings and photographs.

She still watches baseball – the Yankees and the Dodgers mostly, and she’ll try to catch a few games of the World Series very year. But it’s not the same.

“It’s not that personal connection with the players now,” she says. “When we went to the games we would sometimes run into the players in the neighborhood. We would see them all the time.”

“They knew all of us, sure,” Tonkins says. “Man, I don’t know half the people in Greensboro who know me.

“I look at the game today,” the former infielder continues, “it has changed quite a bit. We didn’t know what helmets were. Those batting gloves they wear? We didn’t have those. And they don’t charge players with errors anymore. When I was playing, a ten or fifteen footer, you were supposed to drink that up. Sometimes I’ll be sitting here watching a game and I’ll get disgusted and turn off the TV. It’s a business now, no doubt about it.”

Thomas Edison Alston passed from this world in 1993. Clemente Verona went in 2003. Joe Siddle died last September, shortly after a tablet bearing his likeness was placed on the façade of First Horizon Park. James Tonkins Jr. remembers them all.

“To my knowledge there are only two of us left,” he says. “That’s myself and Robert Rankin. He was our catcher. And we are the last two Red Wings left.”

Tonkins was recently diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a form of lymph node cancer. He’s into his first round of chemotherapy and his doctors have told him that his outlook is pretty good.

“They told me if I was gonna get cancer, this is the kind to have,” he says.

What’s left of his hair is starting to go and he has trouble getting around some days, but James Tonkins Jr. second baseman for the Goshen Red Wings, is not yet ready take his last at-bat.

But when he does, he knows there’s space for him on hallowed ground.

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