This July, Cleveland will host the largest Negro League baseball history conference in America – the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference. It rotates cities each year (last year it was in Indianapolis), so it’s a big deal that it will be in Cleveland this summer. It will bring a collection of former players, authors, and talks from some of the top Negro League baseball historians in the country. Because it’s in Cleveland, there will be a focus on the local history and players; I’ll be giving a talk on all of the pre-League Park stadiums used by teams in Cleveland. Teams typically rented major league parks for games, but there were a number of other, smaller parks used in Cleveland as well.
To draw attention to the conference, and to the history of Negro League baseball in Cleveland, I plan to have a series of stories from now until the conference in July. Cleveland’s role in Negro League baseball history is fascinating, and many people are unaware of the pre-Cleveland Buckeyes material. A few years ago, I helped the Indians write the text of a Negro League history plaque for Heritage Park; this series will be a longer version of the facts briefly outlined on the plaque.
One thing that people do not realize is that Cleveland had 11 different Negro League teams, more than any other city in the country. None of these teams co-existed at the same time though; one would fail, and another would step forward to take its place. I wasn’t even aware of much of this until I started research for my book a few years ago; I also put together team histories for the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, which really helped me sort through piles of material and attempt to make short, concise sense of everything. I still think there is more to the story when you look at many of these teams (particularly the Tate Stars) but I stick to the realm of proven facts and avoid drifting into theories and innuendo.
The first formal and lasting “league” for African American players was started by Chicago native Rube Foster. Dubbed the Negro National League, it formed in 1920 and included a handful of teams, many of which existed before they signed onto the League. Cleveland’s first formal league affiliated team was the Cleveland Tate Stars, formed by a man named George Tate. An Oberlin grad, Tate also owned his own ballpark (Tate Field), an extremely rare feat for a team at this point in history.
Even though the Tate Stars played in Cleveland as early as the late teens, they official joined Foster’s NNL in 1922. There was a lot of optimism about the team’s fortunes for the 1922 season – they even sold stock in the team for $10 a share, and later for $15 a share. Season tickets could be purchased for $11 each, and the ticket holder’s friends and family could enter the park for free with them. Managed by “Candy” Jim Taylor, many of the team’s players came from local Cleveland sandlot teams. There were outside signings, but for the most part, the players came from close to home.
It didn’t take long for fans and shareholders to cry foul at the Tate Stars. By May of 1922, creditors and stockholders were already complaining about outstanding debts owed to them by the team. One court complaint said that the Tate Stars already owed one Cleveland man $4,302.41 and some fans had taken to camping outside of the team’s offices in the hopes of getting their money back. In June, Col. Jacob E. Reed, the team’s treasurer, went public with the complaint that he’d never actually seen the team’s financial books. While one can’t be sure what exactly was taking place with the Tate Stars, it can’t be good if the treasurer has never actually seen any financial documents.
Things did not improve for the Tate Stars as the season progressed, financially or on the field. They finished tied for seventh in the eight-team league, with a record of 17-29. While they could not say for certain, many in the community believed that the Tate Stars were as much as $20,000 in debt. Creditors were finally told that if they received 25% of their initial investment, they could consider themselves lucky. The players were even owed roughly $1,000 in back wages at the end of the season as well. Even though the team made an estimated $8,000 in profits during the 1922 season, that did not even cover half of the estimated debt.
Because of the team’s problems, Rube Foster was ready to kick them out of the NNL for the 1923 season. Even though “Candy” Jim Taylor praised the players he coached and spoke highly of the team, he left his position for unspecified reasons. Even though the Tate Stars started 1923 as an independent team, they were accepted back into the league by the end of June. They did not have any more success on the field, as they went 7-14 in league contests. George Tate said he hoped to bring the team back for the 1924 season, but he seemed to vanish from the public eye after the 1923 season. The team was purchased by new ownership, which changed the name to the Cleveland Browns. The ballpark was sold to a man by the name of George Hooper, who renamed the structure Hooper Field.
While some of the Negro League teams after the Tate Stars had their share of problems, no team had issues to the extent of the Tate Stars. Another interesting point – in all of my research, the Tate Stars are the only team that appeared to sell stock in the team. They had a number of newspaper advertisements pushing the virtues of team stock, but that did not happen with any of the later teams. Perhaps they learned their lesson from the Tate Stars not to promise a return they can’t provide. They were also the only team that seemed to have such a spectacular financial failure. Other teams may have had bad players, or poor attendance, but at least they never had shareholders protesting outside of their offices!
Up Next in part 2: The Cleveland Browns