Dakota Co. Historical Society hosts Historian Frank White to discuss MN’s black baseball roots

By Graham P. Johnson
Posted 7/4/24

On Friday, June 28, the Dakota County Historical Society hosted Frank White, author of They Played For the Love of The Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota to speak about …

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Dakota Co. Historical Society hosts Historian Frank White to discuss MN’s black baseball roots


On Friday, June 28, the Dakota County Historical Society hosted Frank White, author of They Played For the Love of The Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota to speak about Minnesota’s black baseball history. White, a Rondo elder and former director of the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program for the Twins, when speaking about baseball often uses it as a vehicle to showcase time periods and especially the experience of black people during those periods.
Black Baseball’s roots in Minnesota date back into the 1880s with unincorporated teams travelling between communities for games, a practice known as barnstorming.
“Barnstorming was a method for teams to play extra games and make money, but even in Minnesota there were challenges to African American players,” according to the exhibit at the Sibley Historic Site.
These Negro Leagues as they would be known during the 1930s and beyond, faced incredible challenges when travelling in even basic necessities like where to stay and where to eat due to segregated hotels and restaurants.
“Everyone thinks that because we are a northern state, we didn’t have these issues but they were there. They were just different,” said White.
While it was not uncommon for teams to contain both black and white players, hard boundaries did exist for black players. The Minnesota State Tournament didn’t allow black players until 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson started for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Twins’ spring training was not desegregated until the mid-1960s.
One of the earliest black professional baseball teams in Minnesota began in 1907 and was called the St. Paul Gophers or the St. Paul Colored Gophers. The Gophers barnstormed around the state and often played for a larger split of the earnings against local teams.
The Gophers were one of the earliest examples in Minnesota of black baseball players travelling and playing baseball as a profession, at least during the baseball season. And that professional standard was no joke. The Gophers boasted a first-year record of 17-2, and a staggering overall win rate above 70%.
White also points out the oversized economic impact for black communities and the businesses in them to have baseball teams coming to town to play.
A later team known simply for the business that sponsored them, the Uptown Sanitary Shop, showcased just how prolific black baseball teams were in Minnesota. According to White, players would swap between teams regularly for many reasons like better pay demonstrating the dense ecosystem of Minnesota teams early in the 20th century.
“They probably had contracts that were handshakes back then,” said White.
The Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House hosted a baseball team along with a rivalry against the team from the Halle Q. Brown House. Here the confluence of the black community and baseball go hand in hand.
According to White, the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House was a hub for the black community, housing and feeding those who could not stay at or eat in segregated hotels and restaurants including students at the University of Minnesota. The Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House also played host to famous figures like W.E.B. Dubois and Langston Hughes.
When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for major league baseball in 1947, it was the beginning of a new era. It didn’t solve every problem for black baseball players, however.
White addressed the perception that in a post-Robinson world, “things must have been great. They really weren’t.”
Black players playing for major league teams would still travel to segregated states where they wouldn’t be allowed to stay at a hotel with the rest of the team nor eat at the same restaurant. The level of isolation and difficulty in even daily activities was excruciating as well as dangerous. It was not uncommon for black players to travel armed.
“I’m not trying to dwell on negative stuff, but it’s a piece of our history,” said White.
Another effect of desegregating major league baseball was the eventual death of the Negro Leagues. As black players moved to major league teams, so too did their fans, drawing support from Negro League teams. For the mostly black communities that had come to rely on the economic boon of baseball games coming to town, “It was devastating,” said White. The Negro leagues that had flourished in the 1930s were mostly gone in the 1950s as a direct result of integration.
White’s connection to baseball goes beyond a hobby and interest. White’s father, Lou Wilson played for several Negro League teams including the Twin City Colored Giants, where he was a catcher. When White asked his father about his time playing in the Negro Leagues, Lou responded, “that stuff’s not important.”
White disagreed, only learning much about his father’s career from research decades later. Lou White was reticent to discuss his time playing baseball even as he played alongside legends like Harold “Babe” Prince and Buck O’Neil.
When it came to putting together a book, White openly admits he sort of stumbled into it.
“I never had a plan,” said White.
White was first asked to write an article about Minnesota’s black baseball origins. Then he was asked to put together an exhibit, and in 2016 he published They Played For the Love of The Game.
Given the depth of White’s research, the extent of his knowledge of players and teams and dates and positions, one thing stands out. He never got to truly speak with his father about his time in those very same teams before Lou White passed away.
If given the opportunity to speak with any number of the legends that populate baseball’s history, “I’d love to talk to my dad,” said White.
The Sibley Historic Site will showcase an exhibit designed by White open to the public until Monday Sept. 2 about Minnesota’s black baseball history.