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The Greater Victory

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The Darby Hilldales in 1910.Manners are important. Anyone knows this who’s taken a child to a baseball game and been confronted by drunk, profane, vomiting, even violent fans. In 1910, the players themselves didn’t behave much better, and an enterprising Delaware County baseball manager used that to his advantage.

Announcing that he would not tolerate “dirty ballplayers,” Edward Bolden—manager of the Hilldales, a black team based in Darby—promised that his bunch would be “gentlemen in uniform as well as off the field.” Better decorum increased the Hilldale team’s perceived professionalism. That, in turn, attracted the “better classes,” women and families. And it boosted the team’s profits.

“If you weren’t a gentleman, you didn’t play on his ball club,” recalled Jake Stephens, a Hilldale shortstop. “When he called you in his office, you didn’t do it again, or you didn’t play again [until] next year.”

When Stephens joined the Hilldales in 1921, Bolden bought his freshman player two new suits and two new Stetson hats. “Your baseball ability didn’t mean a thing,” said Stephens. “You had to be a gentleman.”

Baseball was huge in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Town ball, a precursor of the modern game, had been played here as early as the 1830s. That game was abandoned in the 1850s for the so-called “New York” game—nine players to a team, three outs per inning and a diamond-shaped field with bases 90 feet apart. After the Civil War, Philadelphia baseball began to professionalize with paid players and enclosed fields that allowed teams to charge admission. In 1884, the city was the only one in the country to have teams in each of three national leagues.

Nor were fans content with merely watching. Dozens of neighborhood and town teams—the Ardmore Tigers, the Chester Stars and the Swarthmore Giants, among others—provided young men with opportunities to play. Many employers also sponsored teams, seeing this as a way to improve morale and productivity while discouraging unionism and strikes. The Lima Locomotive Works sponsored an entire baseball league, with each department fielding a team.

Blacks mostly had separate teams, but not because they weren’t good enough to play with whites. In 1902, when the black Philadelphia Giants played an exhibition match against the white Philadelphia Athletics, a white sportswriter for the Philadelphia Item wrote of the Giants: “Were it not for the fact that their skin is black, some of them would today be drawing fancy salaries in one or the other of the big leagues.”

But society was trending in a different direction. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision legalized segregation. By 1900, blacks found themselves barred from professional baseball.

Fortunately, there were many opportunities for amateur play, according to Neil Lanctot, author of Fair Dealing & Clean Playing, a history of the Hilldales. The black porters at Broad Street Station organized a team, as did black organizations like the Philadelphia Tribune newspaper, the 30th Ward Republican Club and many churches.

Initially, the Hilldales were just another group of black teenagers looking to pass the time. Most lived on “the hill,” a black neighborhood of about 700 north of downtown. So they named themselves for Hilldale Road (a hill thoroughfare) and advertised for other “14- and 15-year-old traveling teams” to play. They offered to split expenses.

The first manager was A.D. Thompson, 19, whose 14-year-old brother, Lloyd, played second base. In 1910, fewer than 10 percent of Americans completed high school, and still fewer blacks. So, despite their ages, team members were fully employed at men’s jobs. One made soap. Another laid bricks. Thomas Jenkins was one of several who worked Saturday mornings, then rushed home to change for an afternoon game. The team usually played in a field at 10th and Summit streets.

Thompson left in the Hilldales’ first season and was replaced as manager by Bolden, a native of Concordville. Players might’ve wondered what they were in for. A former butler with an appreciation of formal manners, Bolden was 29—twice the age of most players—and had worked since 1904 as a postal clerk. Compared to the menial jobs available to most blacks, Bolden’s career was prestigious. (He would continue at the central post office until 1946, when he retired, leaving a personnel file that praised his “unsurpassed and seldom equaled” work habits.) Bolden was married and had a young daughter.

“Yet,” wrote Lanctot, “he was a rabid baseball fan, and the prospect of managing a local team clearly intrigued him.”

And segregation, ironically, created opportunities. If most whites didn’t want to watch blacks play, blacks did (and some whites, too).
 

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Bolden immediately made changes. Previously, team members had paid their expenses by passing hats among the audience, then splitting whatever was left over. Under Bolden’s leadership, this money was pooled and invested in the team’s improvement.

Bolden also peppered the Philadelphia Tribune with press releases and announcements—something the youngsters on his team probably wouldn’t have thought to do. He was looking for games. Most black teams at the time didn’t play regular schedules because most didn’t have fields of their own.

But the Hilldales, Bolden declared, “have good grounds and give a good guarantee for a good attraction.” He asked “all good, fast, colored uniformed teams” in the area to consider a match against the Hilldales.

Professional teams had made some progress against fights between players or among spectators. They owned their fields and, thus, could make and enforce rules. But among amateur and semi-pro teams—black or white—this was new. Fights were frequent, according to Lanctot, especially between those who had bets on the game. Umpires could be attacked by either fans or players.

How bad was it? In 1914, during a championship game between two Delaware County League teams—Media and Clifton Heights—a Clifton fan hunting in the nearby woods walked out of the forest when the bases were loaded and the ball was in midair, about to be caught to give Media the title. The hunter quickly assessed the situation, raised his shotgun, and blew the ball apart in flight.

“This caused players from both teams and hundreds of fans to swarm all over the field,” recalled a Media third baseman. “Fighting was going on everywhere, when finally the firemen had to turn their high-pressure hoses on the crowd. Many were sent to the hospital and to jail.”

That sort of thing didn’t suit Bolden’s sense of orderliness. He warned competing managers that, if they failed to “caution their men from using profane language and interrupting the games, their teams will be barred from our grounds.”

And he did just that. In 1913, Bolden banned an Ardmore Tigers player who’d purposely knocked a Hilldale player unconscious. “Clean baseball” meant success to Bolden.

Impressed by these efforts, more people came to the games. In 1912 and ’13, crowds of 1,000-3,000 were reported. The team wasn’t making much money. Admission was probably no more than 10 cents. In 1914, gate receipts ranged from $20 to $40 per game. Most was reinvested in the team.

Steadily, the Hilldales rose in the hierarchy of local black baseball. The team finished the 1915 season having won 20 games, lost eight and tied two. It got a regular column in the Tribune, built a new grandstand, and purchased new uniforms. In 1916, Philadelphia Rapid Transit began running extra cars to Darby on game Saturdays.

Meanwhile, Bolden continued his crackdown on misbehavior. When fans caused a disturbance, he swore out warrants on four men who were prosecuted and fined. Gamblers and bookies were also arrested, though Bolden never managed to stamp out betting.

The Hilldales began to travel to games in neighboring states. Racial hostility was common, but actual violence rare—in part, perhaps, because of Bolden’s emphasis on self-control. According to third baseman Judy Johnson, playing at South Philadelphia’s Shettsline Field was like “playing in the middle of Mississippi.”

“To get out of the park, you had to go between the two stands,” said Johnson. “They’d hang over the sides and toss stuff at you—bottles, garbage, whatever was handy—and call you all sorts of names.”

Many white teams found losing to blacks hard to swallow and tried a variety of tricks to win. During twilight games, for instance, an umpire might wait until a white team had taken the lead, then call the game for darkness. Bolden occasionally pulled his team off the field to protest such tactics.

But the Hilldales got praise, too. In 1917, the Philadelphia North American noted the team’s demeanor in the face of “raw decisions” by the umpire. “The Hilldale boys did not open their mouths, but let their manager adjust matters,” wrote the paper. “The score was 3-2 in favor of the white team, but the colored boys proved themselves to be gentlemen.”

In the black community, fans risked losing their jobs to watch the team play a tight game or series. The Chicago Defender newspaper said the Hilldales had “the most loyal bunch of fans in the country.”

Hilldale won the Eastern Colored League championship three times and the 1925 Negro League World Series. At the same time, playing white teams required a level of cooperation with white owners that caused many blacks to complain that Bolden failed to stand up for Negro interests. Bolden, who was still employed at the post office, suffered a nervous breakdown in 1928. The Hilldale team dissolved during the Great Depression.

But they were always polite.
 
Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments.
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