The history of black baseball in Minnesota

1909 St. Paul Colored Gophers
The 1909 St. Paul Colored Gophers pose in front of the scoreboard.
Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

Frank White's childhood was all about baseball — watching games at St. Paul's Lexington Park or playing catch with his dad on St. Anthony Avenue in the city's old Rondo neighborhood, before Interstate 94 barreled through it.

White knew his dad was a talented athlete; he just had no idea how talented.

It wasn't until the late 1980s, when he was an adult himself, that White visited a Minnesota Historical Society exhibit on African-American baseball leagues. There, he learned that his father, Louis White, had played baseball with traveling Negro League teams decades before.

When he confronted his father about the never-mentioned achievement, his father simply said, "It wasn't important."

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1910 Minneapolis Keystones
The Minneapolis Keystones, photographed in 1910, were rivals to the St. Paul Colored Gophers.
Courtesy Jason Miller

White disagreed. Now, he's written a book on the subject, "They Played for the Love of the Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota."

The title comes from the reality that most African-American players, for the first half of the 20th century, were playing purely out of passion: Segregation meant African-Americans were cut off from lucrative athletic careers. It wasn't until Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947 that the racial barrier began to break down.

White's book traces the history of African-American baseball players in Minnesota from 1872 through to the 1960s. Excluded from Major League Baseball, they played in semipro leagues and loosely organized clubs of all-black teams, the successes of which have largely been lost to history.

White joins MPR News producer Jim Bickal to talk about his book, his father's little-known baseball career and the history of black baseball across the state.

The book starts at the beginning, when the Civil War brought baseball to Minnesota.

Before the war, the sport had primarily been confined to the New York area, but Union soldiers spread it as they marched, teaching regiments from other northern states how to play. When Minnesota soldiers returned home, they brought the game back with them.

The first recorded African-American baseball player in the state was Prince Honeycutt, in Fergus Falls in 1872. White cites author Steven Hoffbeck for Honeycutt's story: Honeycutt was a "mess boy" during the Civil War, and he followed a Union soldier back to Fergus Falls, where he became the first black resident of the town. There, he set up shop as a barber and helped form the Fergus Falls North Star Baseball Club.

Prince Honeycutt
Prince Honeycutt, one of the first African-American baseball players in the state, stands outside his barbershop in Fergus Falls, Minn., in this undated photo.
Courtesy Otter Tail Historical Society

Honeycutt was one of several African-Americans who played across the state in the last decades of the 19th century. Though some baseball clubs began banning African-Americans as early as 1867, other leagues held out. By 1900, however, all of organized baseball "had signed on to the so-called gentleman's agreement banning African-Americans," White writes.

Excluded from the rapidly developing national baseball scene, African-Americans formed their own clubs and leagues. Though Honeycutt kicked things off in Fergus Falls, the majority of the action in Minnesota was focused in the Twin Cities.

At the time, the African-American population of Minnesota was small: "Only about 4,000 of Minnesota's nearly two million residents were African-American, and more than 90 percent of them lived in Minneapolis and St. Paul," according to White.

In 1907, Minnesota's "most notable black baseball team" was formed: the St. Paul Colored Gophers. The team's charismatic co-founder was Phil "Daddy" Reid, a native Kentuckian who found success as a business owner in St. Paul.

Next came the team's rivals from across the river, the Minneapolis Keystones. The teams toured the Midwest "to play any team — white or black — willing to book them," White writes. "These two teams were among the best in baseball in the Midwest — regardless of skin color — and their records reflect their success."

White chronicles the politics, successes and stars of Minnesota's developing African-American teams. By 1920, the Negro National League was formed, but no Minnesota teams were included. Instead, Minnesota's teams kept touring the Midwest, barnstorming towns and playing whomever they could.

The Great Depression took a hard swing at baseball. "Not only did African American communities suffer greatly with the lack of available jobs and other hardships, it was particularly difficult for their ball clubs to stay afloat," White wrote. "Indeed, the overall number of baseball teams, both white and black, declined during the decade."

Wheatley House Girls softball team
Women got in on the game, too: Pictured are the Wheatley House Girls softball team, circa 1925. The Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House provided temporary housing and social services for young African-American women; the North Minneapolis building was demolished when I-94 was built.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The 1940s came with an economic rebound and an historic moment: Jackie Robinson's first game with the Dodgers. Though it signaled a change in Major League Baseball, "many teams held off for years before signing any black players," White writes. "Giving spots to African-Americans was viewed as taking jobs away from white players."

Successful African-American players in Minnesota continued to face prejudices and slurs. In 1948, Roy Campanella joined the St. Paul Saints, which was then a farm team for the Giants. He became the first African-American player in the American Association — but no hotel in St. Paul would rent him a room, according to White.

As major league teams gradually added more African-Americans to their rosters, the vibrant clubs leagues that had been established in Minnesota and around the country began to fade. Fans could now go to St. Paul's Lexington Park and Minneapolis' Nicollet Park "to watch superstars like Roy Campanella, Dan Bankhead, Jim Pendleton, Dave Barnhill, and Ray Dandridge suit up for the American Association's Saints and Millers, some of them on their way to the major leagues," White writes. The legendary Willie Mays even played for the Minneapolis Millers in 1951.

But desegregation also meant that "the Twin City Colored Giants — the area's last all-black team — were playing their final season in 1955," according to White.

Minneapolis Millers, including Willie Mays
The Minneapolis Millers, including Ray Dandridge, Dave Barnhill and Willie Mays, in 1951.
Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

The next chapter for many players, White writes, was fast-pitch softball. "The sport took Minnesota by storm in the 1950s," and softball teams sprouted in neighborhoods where baseball had once dominated.

"They Played for the Love of the Game" profiles players of all ages, from high school through the major leagues, who played a role in the African-American baseball scene across Minnesota. Minnesota baseball legend Dave Winfield, who spent more than two decades in the major leagues and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame, provided the foreword for the book.

After reading White's book, he said, he gained a new perspective on his career.

"It was not a straight or easy road," Winfield writes. "But I learned that my path was much easier than my predecessors'."

If you go: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota

Frank White, author of "They Played for the Love of the Game," will speak at the Minnesota History Center.
When: Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m.
Cost: The event is free and open to the public.
Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
More information: Details are available from the MNHS.