Baseball season has been delayed this year, but April 15 is still a special day in the baseball world. On that date, baseball players throughout the major leagues have traditionally worn the No. 42 on their jerseys in honor of Jackie Robinson.
Long before Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier by suiting up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, black players competed in baseball all over the United States, and the world.
The hallowed Negro Leagues produced some of baseball’s most legendary names, such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston, players that may not have gotten the chance to play much, if at all, in Major League Baseball but still earned spots in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
For others, playing baseball meant life perpetually spent on the road. Many teams barnstormed through the South and Midwest, calling small towns home for a little while before packing up their equipment and moving on. And while you may never have heard of players like “Midge” Mitchell and “Gip” Noble, they held baseball dreams of their own.
For one summer, a black baseball team called Mason City home.
The Texas Black Spiders
The Mason City Black Bats, as they came to be called, originated in Mineola, Texas, where they were known as the Texas Black Spiders. A good number of small towns in the 1930s had town baseball teams. Mineola had an all-white town ball club, and an all-black ball club.
A man named Vernon Klingaman, who grew up near Marshalltown, Iowa, bought the Mineola Black Spiders. Originally, the team consisted of mostly local players. Once Klingaman expanded the team and allowed players from around the state and region to join, they took on the name Texas Black Spiders.
In 1932, Klingaman packed up the team and took it on the road as a barnstorming club, playing local teams in small towns all over the Midwest.
Barnstorming teams would also often adopt a city as a temporary home, or pack up and move to a new town for a season. According to Layton Revel, the founder of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, teams in the Negro Leagues would often travel to a new city and play a season under a different name. This was done mostly by teams based in the South that would travel north to places that treated black ballplayers well.
"For example, the Jacksonville Eagles, they went to Indian Head (Canada)," Revel said. "Once they got to Indian Head, which was a big resort community, they became the Indian Head Rockets. That was not uncommon for teams to go and represent another community."
That same year, Mason City had formed its own white baseball team called the Mason City Bats. The Bats played many of the top barnstorming teams in the country, including the House of David, a religious commune baseball team known for players with long hair and beards.
The Bats also played against some top black ball clubs such as Gilkerson's Union Giants.
In July 1932, the Texas Black Spiders came to Mason City.
The Spiders played a series of games around the state of Iowa that summer. After a rainout of their scheduled July 6 game against the Bats, the Spiders played two games against Ackley over the next few weeks.
On July 17, the Spiders and Bats played a game at the North Iowa fairgrounds, with Spiders pitcher J.B. Griffin earning the win by striking out 17 Bats batters.
Following that game, the Spiders played games against teams from Corwith and Rockford before returning to Mason City for a rematch. In that game, Griffin managed to strike out 14 Bats batters.
The Mason City Blacks Bats
On July 26, the Spiders were scheduled to play a game at the fairgrounds against Charles City. Before that game began, however, the majority of the Spiders ballplayers jumped ship on Klingaman, apparently due to a dispute over pay. The owners of the Mason City Bats then released their entire roster and replaced them with the former Spiders players.
The new team took the name Mason City Black Bats, and throughout the summer, the team played other North Iowa squads. A Globe Gazette article from Aug. 31, 1932, advertised an upcoming game against Charles City, and read:
“Charles City Day: Four acts of vaudeville; Clover Leaf quartet; Baseball- Mason City Black Bats vs. Charles City, state champions. Freddy Larson will be on the mound for Charles City and will be opposed by Lefty Griffith for the Black Bats. Black Bat quartet and colored drum corps to back up their favorites while Charles City municipal band supports the state champions. Henry Field, republican nominee for United States senator, will speak at 3:45 p.m.”
The team seemed to become a hit. Newspapers described the Black Bats in colorful, and not always racially sensitive fashion.
In the 1930s, black baseball teams often had some kind of comedic shtick. Some teams would clown and chatter in entertaining ways during the game, while others would have a memorable theme. Perhaps the most memorable was the Zulu Cannibal Giants, a team that dressed in grass skirts and war paint and played in bare feet, inspired by depictions of warriors fighting in Ethiopia’s ongoing war.
According to research from SABR writer Paul R. Spyhalski, the Black Bats were known for their flashy play and tremendous speed. First baseman Frank Mitchell was so good, he would reportedly tell the other fielders to throw the ball to him badly so that he could make a more spectacular play.
In Spyhalski’s paper “The Black Bats of Mason City and beyond," Spiders and Black Bats player Lonnie Arthur was quoted as saying, “He’d turn his back on the ball and catch it,” in regards to Mitchell’s play.
While the reason for the Spiders’ players defection is not known, low pay and a dearth of scheduled games is most likely the reason. The players seemed willing to stay in Iowa and delay their return to Texas, probably due to the better conditions and treatment of black ballplayers in the Midwest.
Black ballplayers could earn anywhere from $8 to $10 more per week in the Midwest than they could in the South, according to Spyhalski, while also being allowed to eat in the main area of a restaurants, something that would never happen in Texas.
Furthermore, white ballplayers were paid on salary, while the Spiders were paid a percentage of the gate receipts, meaning that employing black ballplayers was most likely much cheaper for the team’s ownership.
The highlight of the Black Bats’ existence came in late August, when the legendary Kansas City Monarchs came to town. On Aug. 24, 1932, the Monarchs and Black Bats faced off at the North Iowa fairgrounds, with the Monarchs coming out on top, 6-3.
On Sept. 1, the teams faced off again at the fairgrounds. The game was played under Kansas City’s portable lighting system, in the first night baseball game in Mason City history. Though Mason City pitcher Bill Mitchell struck out 14 batters, the Monarchs won again, 11-0.
A few weeks later, the Black Bats signed a pitcher named Jimmy "Lefty" Claxton, also known as “Chief Two-Horse." Claxton was multi-racial, including Native American, African-American and French. He played in the Pacific Coast League in 1916 for the Oakland Oaks for a few games, advertised as a full-blooded Oklahoma Indian, but was released when ownership discovered his black ancestry. He spent several decades pitching for semi-pro and independent league teams, billed as a Native American pitcher.
His 1916 baseball card was the very first American baseball card to feature a black player.
In 1932, he played with both the Cuban Stars and the Nebraska Indians, billed as “Chief Two-Horse.” After the Indians season came to an end, he signed on with the Black Bats and pitched well, including a seven-inning outing in a 4-3 loss to the House of David.
Once the season came to an end, it appears as if most of the Black Bats players returned to Texas and rejoined Klingaman's Spiders. When the 1933 season got underway, two players from the Black Bats, "Gip" Nobles and Joe Carpenter, remained on the Mason City squad.
They did not last long, as the team joined the Southern Minnesota-Iowa League in late April. According to Spyhalski's research, the league’s directors quickly decreed that black ballplayers would not be allowed.
The Spiders returned to Mason City for a game against the local ball team on July 7, 1933, and as the Globe Gazette noted, the Spiders team was mostly comprised of former Bats’ ballplayers.
The Spiders continued to play for several more years, barnstorming around the Midwest. They played against a 15-year old Bob Feller in 1934 in a game in Sidney, Iowa. In 1935, the team employed a female pitcher named "Baby" Tilliford, who proved to be a fan favorite.
The next season, the Spiders earned 34 wins in their first 35 games. The Spiders also traveled to Mexico with a baseball team featuring Negro Leagues legend Buck O'Neil at some point in the decade, according to writer Jeff Campbell.
The end for the Black Spiders most likely came about because of World War II. In his paper "Early East Texas Baseball," Campbell noted that wartime shortages and rations on gasoline, tires, and auto parts made cross country bus travel extremely difficult.
The final record of the Spiders playing baseball came in 1941.
A historical marker in remembrance of the Black Spiders was completed in 2011 and stands in Mineola, Texas.
The Negro Leagues continued to operate until the late 1950s. After Robinson, many black ballplayers made their debuts in the major leagues. After that, the Negro Leagues, and black baseball, faded away.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!