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Monday, May 23, 2022

OPINION:

There are Washington sports legends that are easy to find. There have been books written about them. They have been celebrated for their exploits on the big stage. Their stories now live again and again on the internet for generations long removed from the days that Walter Johnson threw fire from the mound and Sammy Baugh seemingly played every position on the football field.

That’s how some legends evolve — they live on and get bigger than life, long after they have departed this earth.


Some legends, though, slowly disappear, relying on tales told by those who witnessed those legends — often the only record of legendary greatness, perhaps on a much small scale — but still told with reverence.

Stories, though, fade. They get forgotten, only sometimes briefly mentioned in conversation. That’s how I would hear bits and pieces about the Washington Black Sox, a sandlot baseball team consisting primarily of Black baseball players that would become one of the best on the East Coast.

It had always piqued my interest, in part because some of the people I would do business with on the boxing beat in this town had, at one point or another from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s, played for the Washington Black Sox.

Rock Newman was the manager of world heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe. Ron Harris would also work for Bowe. J.D. Brown was an advisor with Sugar Ray Leonard and also the manager of middleweight champion William Joppy, among others. Janks Morton would also help train Leonard and other fighters, including future heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman.

There was a time when this was essentially the boxing universe in Washington. And in between talks about that universe, there would be mentions of this baseball team, the one that ruled the sandlots in the DMV.

“The first word that comes to mind is probably ‘legendary,’ said Newman, who had been an All-American third baseman at Howard University, playing for the great Chuck Hinton. “I think that would be accurate. The Black Sox were the dominant semi-pro team in the area for a long time.”

“We were better than good,” said Brown, who also played at Howard. “We were probably one of the best amateur teams on the East Coast.”

“We were very good,” said Harris, who played college ball at George Washington with Bill Collins and Sam Perlozzo and later coached with Hinton at Howard. “I played 12 years for them. They were very good before I got there.”

They were there since 1929, according to a 1984 Washington Post story, perhaps the last media record of the Black Sox, nearly 40 years ago. And the legend who started it as a 12-year-old boy and kept it going for decades was William “Doffey” Jones, who operated the Black Sox as a barnstorming Negro League team in the mid-Atlantic until he built his own ballpark in the early 1960s in Mitchellville, Maryland. That park became home field for the Black Sox.

“That was a pro park, man,” Harris said. “It was 330 (feet) down the lines, 375 (feet) in the alleys and 410 (feet) in center. You had to hit it to get it out of there.”

The Black Sox played in different leagues -— the Tri-State League and the Maryland Industrial League (formerly the Washington Post Industrial League), and they won consistently in both. When they came to your neighborhood to play, it was an event.

“The Brandywine (Maryland) ACs was where I grew up,” Newman said. “Five of my brothers played on that team. I was a bat boy when I was a kid and later I played for that team. They (Washington Black Sox) would come out and it was always a big deal. The Brandywine team was also well stocked. The home field for Brandywine was Gray’s Park.

“The ritual was after church on Sunday, people prepared, or had already prepared, their fried chicken and potato salad and all of that,” Newman said. “I would say that typically there would be 400 or 500 people at a game in a small park. But when the Black Sox came there would easily be 1,000 people. Cars would be lined up along the highway. They were seen as the premiere team.”

They would travel every summer to play in the national semi-pro tournament in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and won it in 1969, 1970, 1974 and 1977. 

Harris was the most valuable player in the tournament one year (his brother, long-time Washington broadcaster Glenn Harris, who was a Hall of Fame catcher at Howard, also played for the Black Sox).

“(Former New York Yankees pitcher) Jim Bouton (author of ‘Ball Four’) pitched against us in that tournament,” Brown said.

In various years, the Washington Black Sox had many players who had spent time in minor league systems. And they had some well-known local athletic stars as well. Some of the other players who wore the uniform of this legendary team included Farley Banks, his brother Cornell, Barney Gidders (who was white — the Black Sox would use white players as well, but their rosters primarily consisted of black ballplayers), Staley Jackson, Robert Woodland, Duck Smith, Oscar “Beetle” Henson, Melvin “Weasel” Jackson, Harold Greer, Butch White, Bobby Harrison, Dr. Tom Johnson, and many, many others.

“Doffey was a great recruiter,” Newman said. “He got guys to play.”

Doffey passed away in 2004. Sandlot baseball had already died.  But these players were once the stars of the local diamonds and today, in 2022, at least one more time, they will be remembered and celebrated here.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.


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