Early Black Baseball/Charles Douglass

By Jerry Malloy


I'm grateful for Mike Marsh's citation of David K. Wiggins's "Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America," which mentions ex-slave narratives referring to playing baseball, or one of its antecedents. I thank Mike for prompting me to order a copy of this provocative tome through interlibrary loan.

Philip Block, a superb historian of Japanese baseball, provoked my curiosity about the early period of black baseball, with his recollection of seeing at the HOF library an unpublished account of the frustrations of black teams in Philadelphia, the Queen Mother of African American baseball cities, in scheduling games against white nines. Philip also mentioned Frederick Douglass watching his son, Charles, playing for the Alerts, of Washington, D.C., against the Philadelphia Pythians in 1867.

I'd like to pitch in with some data (and opinions) concerning three topics: antebellum black baseball in the north, antebellum black baseball in the south, and the career of Charles Douglass, son of Frederick.


Dean Sullivan's "Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908" (1995, pp, 34-5), includes an account (with a box score) from the "New York Anglo-African" of December 10, 1859, of a game played on November 15th on Long Island, between the Henson Base Ball Club of Jamaica, New York, and a black team called the Unknown, of Weeksville.

"The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History," by Phil Dixon and Patrick J. Hannigan (1992, pp. 31-2) also mentions the Unknowns, in a game played on September 28, 1860, against another black team, the Union Club, of Williamsburg. Dixon and Hannigan cite "baseball historian Harry Simmons," (with whom I am not familiar) who, according to the authors, stated that the Unknowns and Unions consisted of "former slaves living in Brooklyn," and cited "a letter written by a member of the Unions to a newspaper, advising the editor that the team's real name was the 'colored Union Club. We do not want to be confused with a white Union club of the same name.'"


Throughout the ninteenth century, the overwhelming preponderence of black Americans, 90% or more, lived in the south. As late as the 1900 census, for example, only 2% of Chicago's total population was black, and similar percentages applied to most northern cities. Yet most of the prominent black players of the 19th century were born in the north (Bud Fowler in New York, Frank Grant in Massachusetts, George Stovey in Pennsylvania, Sol White and Fleet Walker in Ohio, for example). I've often wondered about early black baseball in the south.

The earliest of southern black athletes participated in individual events, as jockies and prize-fighters. It may be that slave-holders viewed the coalescing of slaves into groups for team activities as potentially dangerous, and actively discouraged it. Tom Gilbert, in "Baseball And the Color Line" (1995, p. 38), writes that in 1797 (!) the city of Fayetteville, N.C., passed a law prohibiting African Americans from playing baseball on Sundays. Unfortunately, Gilbert's book is severly underdocumented, and does not cite a source for this statement.

President Reagan's caveat in dealing with the Soviet Union--Trust, But Verify--seems to be in order here. I think it is unlikely that the word "baseball" was used in any such ordinance, but it's quite possible that a term such as "playing ball" was.

By the 1880s, black baseball teams were numerous throughout the south, but prior to that, documentation is scant. The earliest southern black team I've found was in New Orleans, where early French and Spanish influences moderated the rigid racial practices that were common elsewhere in the south. On September 25, 1869, "The National Chronicle" reported that, "A colored club of New Orleans, have adopted as their name the suggestive one of Aromatics. Whew, go way, dar!" The "New York Clipper" of December 25, 1869, noted that a black team called the Aromatics "defeated the Young Eagles, at San Francisco, Cal., on the 5th inst. Score, 58 to 24," but does not mention where this "Aromatic" club was from.

I am unaware of anyone systematically researching black baseball in the south prior to the Civil War, and, other than the Wiggins citation that Mike Marsh mentions above, have seen no references to it. However, it may well be that this indicates not so much the evidence of absence as the absence of evidence. I think it is entirely possible that some black teams may have been formed, most likely, as was the case with both black and white baseball in the northeast and midwest, within an urban, middle class setting. Most large southern cities contained free blacks and slaves who were skillful artisans, and possibly were in contact with northern businessmen, travellers, etc., from whom they may have been introduced to the game. If black teams existed in the antebellum south, I think it most likely that they would have emerged from such communities. If anyone is aware of such developments, I would be very interested to know of them.


Charles Redmond Douglass, born in 1844, was Frederick Douglass's third son. Frederick Douglass claimed that the first soldier he enlisted in creating a black regiment for the Civil War was his youngest son, Charles. However, illness curtailed his participation in hostilities. After the war, Charles worked at a Freedmen's hospital in Washington, D.C. There he became enthralled with the excitement of living in the nation's capitol, where returning black soldiers filled the burgeoning black population with racial pride. It was during this time that the "New York Clipper" reported that Frederick Douglass saw his son play for the Alerts against the Philadelphia Pythians in the game cited by Philip Block [July 13, 1867]. Charles Douglass returned to his native Rochester, New York, but the lure of Washington remained strong, and when, in the spring of 1868, he was offered a job paying $100 per month at the Freedmen's Bureau, he jumped at the chance, even thought it meant leaving his pregnant wife in Rochester, to be cared for by his mother, much to the disapproval of some members of his family. The following spring, Charles lost his position when the staff was drastically reduced, but apparently he found employment in another government agency.

The information above is taken from William S. McFeely's "Frederick Douglass" (1991, pp. 103, 224, 248, 257, 258, 272). While reading McFeely's book it occured to me that Frederick Douglass's papers at the Library of Congress may contain correspondence with his son that includes information on the latter's baseball activities. But Philip Block's conversation with the late historian Phil Foner would indicate otherwise.

In 1870 Charles Douglass joined the Mutuals, an African American team that had been formed the previous year, consisting primarily of government clerks. Douglass played right field for the "Mutes." That September, the Mutuals embarked upon a successful tour which took them to Baltimore, Md., and Lockport, Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Rochester (Charles's home town), Utica, Canajoharie, and Troy, NY. They won all eight games, outscoring their opponents by an average score of 47-13. ["New York Clipper," September 10, 1870.]

The following August, the Mutuals played the Pythians of Philadelphia on the grounds of the Athletics Club, losing twice, 20-15 and 17-16. At the time, the Pythians and Mutuals were regarded as the two best black teams in the nation. Douglass was listed as right fielder in the box scores for both games. ["New York Clipper," August 19, September 2, 1871.]

The record is silent on the Mutuals for 1872 and 1873, but in 1874 they travelled to Boston and lost to a club called the Stars, 19-11. No box score is available for this contest. ["New York Clipper," September 5, 1874.] On July 31, 1875, the "Clipper" reported that the Mutuals were planning a trip to western New York, and that clubs interested in booking games should contact the Mutuals's secretary, Charles R. Douglass, 1116 F Street, Washington, D.C. The "Clipper's" listing of the Mutual Club's officers for 1876 and 1877 do not include Douglass. [March 11, 1876, March 24, 1877.]

What became of Charles Douglass and the Mutuals thereafter remains unknown, at least to me. By the early 1883, there were two prominent black teams in Washington, the Manhattans, and the Douglass club, and Charles may have been involved with either one. The Manhattans eventually participated in a tripartite merger with the Keystone Athletics and Orions, both of Philadelphia, to form the famous Cuban Giants, the first black professional club, in 1885.

One further note about Charles Douglass. His son, Joseph Douglass, became an accomplished concert violinist, and the favorite family member of his grandfather, Frederick. (McFeely, pp. 222, 306.)

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