Karl Lindholm: Spot Poles — great name, great player, great time
Ever hear of Spottswood Poles?
An arresting name, to be sure — and a terrific baseball player in the first half of the game’s segregated era, although hardly a household name among fans of baseball history.
Known as the “Black Ty Cobb,” Spot Poles played on black teams in the 19-teens and ’20s, the same years that Cobb played in the white major leagues.
Cobb and Poles had similar skills and style of play, batting for a high average, playing aggressive outfield defense, and using speed on the bases to create havoc. Poles was once timed running 100 yards in less than 10 seconds, world record time.
A 5’9”, 165-pound switch-hitter, he was the leadoff batter and centerfielder for some of the best Negro league teams of the era: During eight of his 14 seasons, he played for the New York Lincoln Giants (1911-14; 1919-23).
Paul Robeson, actor, singer, activist, and athlete (All-American football player) and Poles’ contemporary, declared Spot the best baseball player ever saw — and grouped him with Jesse Owens and boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis as the greatest black athletes of all time.
None other than New York Giants manager John McGraw said that the four Negro league players he most wished he could sign for the Giants were John Henry Lloyd, Cannonball Dick Redding, Smokey Joe Williams, all Hall of Famers — and Spottswood Poles.
According to the “Negro Leagues Database,” Poles batted well over .300 in his 14 years of play in Negro leagues, in his four years of winter ball against top flight competition, black and white, in Cuba, and in his exhibition play against teams of white major leaguers.
I was actually introduced to Spot Poles’ career by Stephen Harris, local author of military histories. He was working on a book on the legendary Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment, who fought so fiercely and heroically under French command in World War I.
Steve had discovered in his research that the Hellfighters included a top baseball player, Spottswood Poles. Spot indeed left baseball in 1917 at age 30 to join the war effort and was assigned to the 369th. He earned five battle stars and a Purple Heart for his service in combat in Europe.
Born in Winchester, Va., in 1887, Poles began his baseball career at age 17 with the Harrisburg (Penn.) Colored Giants. Before long, he was competing at the highest levels of professional black baseball, first with the Philadelphia Giants (1909) and then with the Lincoln Giants (1911).
(The profusion of black teams named the “Giants” in black baseball derives from the respect black players felt for the New York Giants, the best white team at the turn of the century, and their manager, McGraw, an avowed foe of the color ban, who often expressed his admiration for black ballplayers.)
While in baseball, and then after his career ended, Poles called Harrisburg home. He lived there in Pennsylvania’s capital for most of his long life, and lived well, owning his own taxi service, among other enterprises.
He died at 74 in 1962 and is buried with his wife Bertha at Arlington National Cemetery. As baseball historian John Holway has written, “although he didn’t get the recognition he deserved for his ball playing, he did get final recognition for service to his country.”
Spottswood Poles is particularly on my mind now because I spent last weekend in Harrisburg at the 20th annual SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference, each year held in a different city having a distinctive Negro league history. Harrisburg also hosted the first Negro League Conference in 1998.
In the 1920s, the Harrisburg Giants, under the great Oscar Charleston as player-manager, and with stalwarts Ben Taylor, Rap Dixon, and Fats Jenkins on the team, played in the Eastern Colored League (ECL) with teams from New York, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and Brooklyn.
The Conference consists of three days of papers, presentations, and various events, all dedicated to the study of the Negro leagues and to paying homage to these great players and teams.
Friday night we conduct “field work” by attending a ball game. This year, the Harrisburg Senators took on the Portland Sea Dogs. The game was played on Island Park, an actual island in the middle of the wide Susquehanna which runs through Harrisburg. Baseball games have been played on that site since the 1890s.
The Negro League Conference is about my favorite thing to do each summer.
As for the name “Spottswood”:
Local Harrisburg historian Calobe Jackson Jr. explained that the name “Spotswood” is both a first and last name for African Americans in Harrisburg.
There’s a Spotswood, Virginia, a tiny community about 100 miles south of Poles’ birthplace in Virginia, probably named after colonial Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood. Maybe there’s a connection. I’ll keep digging.
Poles was nominated for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2006 when 17 Negro Leaguers were inducted into baseball’s shrine all at once after a formal process of evaluation. Spot missed by a whisker, determined by the experts to be in the next tier of excellence.
He may yet get in. If so, you can be sure I’ll go to the induction ceremony.
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