Friday, February 24, 2012

Doc's Cause

(Copyright 20012 by Glenn Stout. All rights reserved)

He virtually worked for free, but he did not work for nothing. And in the end, the payoff made us all richer.

When Branch Rickey erased organized baseball’s color line by signing Jackie Robinson to play for Montreal in 1946 and broke the major league color line by promoting him to the Dodgers in 1947, Rickey did not act alone. Both his decision and his selection of Robinson was the direct result of years of pressure and lobbying, both subtle and pronounced, from Americans of many different backgrounds. Most of these men and women of courage spoke out against prejudice and bigotry long before it was socially convenient.

The bulk of this pressure came from the outside the game, from leaders in the political, religious and social arena. Inside the game, however, the pressure to eradicate the color barrier came almost exclusively from journalists who covered baseball. Many, like Dave Egan of the Boston Record, called for the barrier to fall long before it was comfortable for him to do so and without regard to the impact it might make on his career.

But by the time Egan and other mainstream journalists went public with their disapproval, they were already standing on the shoulders of giants who had taken up the cause many years earlier. Decades before Robinson reached the major leagues journalists of color had been alternately agitating and arguing for racial equality, promoting the cause of African American athletes, calling attention to both their skills and the inequity that, all too often, kept them segregated on the fields of play.

In Boston, one of these giants of sports journalism stood barely five feet tall. Yet of all those who have brought their byline to the cause, no one in Boston was ever more effective than Mabray “Doc” Kountze. In a career in journalism that spanned more than fifty years, Doc Kountze’s influence, though little known, was enormous. If not for his efforts not only might the Red Sox have waited a little longer to integrate, but so too might all of major league baseball.

He was that important.

Kountze was born in West Medford, Massachusetts in 1910. His grandfather, James Monroe Mabray Kountze, was a native of Virginia, a free black man who in the mid-1800s nearly repatriated to Africa. Instead, he remained in America and his son, Hilliard was born into servitude in 1862 before being set free following the Civil War. Hilliard married and settled with his family in West Medford, Massachusetts, a city with a small but vital black population that traced its roots back more than three hundred years. Kountze and his wife, Madeline, eventually had ten children, including a son named Mabray.

Most of the Kountze children were athletic and excelled in sports at Medford High School, from which Mabray Kountze would graduate in 1932. He shared the enthusiasm of his siblings and their love of sports but did not enjoy the same robust health. As a child he was sickly and his illnesses may have had something to do with his diminutive size. Although he played sports when he could at local playgrounds like Dugger Park and Playstead Park, where in sandlot baseball games he usually played catcher, he more often found himself in the role of the observer. His brothers Hilliard Junior and Al both played for the semi-pro West Medford Independents, one of the best the semi-pro teams in the Boston area. Organized in 1902 the Independents played in the Greater Boston League, a fast integrated semi-pro circuit made up primarily of white teams, winning the championship on at least one occasion, in 1908.

Kountze often travelled with the Independents, watching his brothers play and being exposed to the best semi-pro baseball – black and white – in New England. Due to the relatively small size of the local black population, Boston never truly fielded a club in the traditional “Negro Leagues,” yet there was still enough talent and interest in the sport that the Boston area often supported a half dozen clubs or more, like the Boston Giants, Boston Rangers, Boston Tigers, the Wolverines and others. The best of these teams, the Philadelphia Royal Giants, (who despite their name were based in Boston) routinely toured New England and the Canadian Maritimes from the 1920s into the 1940s.

Most often, their opposition was white teams from nearby industrial leagues, like the Blackstone Valley League, or representatives from Boston’s vibrant semi-pro league that still exists today, the Park League. Even as a young man, as Kountze later wrote that he believed that some of these teams were “one of the most, if not the most, powerful baseball clubs… from all New England, including the Red Sox and Braves.”

Urged on by his brother Hilliard, Kountze kept a scrapbook of the achievements of these teams, clipping the occasional stories from local, mainstream newspapers, but primarily relying upon the Boston Guardian, one of the foremost African American newspapers in the country, a paper that was, at the time, considered somewhat radical for its aggressive editorial stance that called not for appeasement or accommodation but for African American independence and self-reliance.

For a time, Kountze himself subscribed to these same viewpoints, admitting once to the author that in his younger days he had been a staunch segregationist. However, while still a young man Kountze underwent a religious conversion and chose to dedicate his life to what he referred to as “a Cause above Cash, God above Gold, Purpose above Property, Soul above Silver.” His beliefs would find perhaps their best expression in his life’s work. Sports, in his own admission, became his personal “survival kit.”

While still a student at Medford High School, Kountze began drawing cartoons for school publications. They were compared favorably with the work of local sports cartoonists like Gene Mack of the Boston Globe and Bob Coyne of the Post. Kountze soon began contributing drawings to the Associated Negro Press, a news agency founded in 1919 by a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute that supplied African American newspapers with general and feature news from around the country, precisely the kind of afro-centric reportage that was unavailable in the mainstream white press. That sparked an interest in journalism in Kountze and he began stringing for the ANP as well, writing brief general news items.

At the same time, his artistic talents attracted several assignments to create posters for local sports teams, touting big games and matchups, and he soon found himself acting as the de facto public relations agent for team like the West Medford Independents. In 1930, two years before he graduated from Medford High, Kountze was invited by William “Sheep” Jackson, a former All-Scholastic from Malden High School, to contribute sports items to the Boston Chronicle, Boston’s other black oriented newspaper, which differed somewhat from the Guardian in that the Chronicle tended to include more social news than the politically motivated Guardian. These jobs paid very little, if anything, but Kountze did not care. He never married and never complained. Journalism was his calling, and he would soon find his cause.

Almost immediately, Kountze took on the idiocy of baseball’s color line. As he put it himself, “I associated with Negro team players and coaches alike at the ground level and not high up in the press boxes.” Close observation of both Boston area African American players and those Negro League teams that occasionally barnstormed through New England told him that there were plenty of African American ballplayers with major league ability. Pitcher Will Jackman of the Philadelphia Giants, for example, was the New England equivalent of Satchel Paige, and research by the late Dick Thompson indicated that comparison may well be more than hyperbole. Others, like outfielder Tubby Johnson, went back and forth between the Giants and more established Negro League clubs. Although Kountze did not often attend games at either Braves Field or Fenway Park, a number of ex-major leaguers played in local semi pro leagues, and on occasion, the best teams, like mill owner Walter Schuster’s powerful club from Douglas, Massachusetts, were able to entice active major leaguers such as Philadelphia A’s pitcher Lefty Grove to pitch on an off day.

Kountze primarily expressed his views in columns in the Chronicle such as “The Chronicle Sports Review” “National Sports Hook Up” and “Covering the Big Leagues.” In these columns Kountze reported not only on local black athletes, but on established white stars. In his column there was no color line, at least not one that he recognized as valid.

His approach was ingenious, for by writing about African American ballplayers and white major leaguers together, in the same context, Kountze was able to enforce his larger message; there was no difference in ability, only in opportunity. Moreover, his articles in the Chronicle and the Guardian provided almost the only coverage of African American baseball in the Boston area.

But Doc Kountze did not confine his efforts to Boston. His goal was nothing less than the eradication of the color line in the major leagues, an ambitious objective. He realized that the color line existed not only on the playing field, but in the press box and on the sports pages of the mainstream white press. As a result, few fans, white sportswriters or major league scouts even knew who the most talented black players were. They played in virtual anonymity, particularly at the semi-pro, prep and collegiate level. How, thought Kountze, would African Americans ever reach the major leagues if the fans, writers and scouts didn’t even know who they were, or who was the best among them?

His solution to the quandary was simple. In the early 1930s he formed an informal, ad hoc group called the National Negro Newspaper All-American Association of Sports Editors, and convinced his counterparts at other black newspapers around the country like the New York Age, Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender, to join him. As Kountze once told the author, the NNNAASE “pooled votes to select star athletes and teams from the various conferences of Negro Colleges…By channeling the all-star and All-American picks coast-to-coast via the Associated Negro Press, it exposed outstanding athletes to a wider audience, including white pro scouts.” The selection of such teams touted their accomplishments all around the country, gave these athletes valuable publicity, and – were major league baseball ever to look – made the African American ballplayer much easier for major league scouts to find. Interestingly enough, they did not focus their efforts on promoting established Negro League stars, but younger athletes. Long before Branch Rickey realized that it would take a special person to withstand the rigors of breaking the color line, Kountze and his colleagues had arrived at the same conclusion, and were particularly supportive of collegiate athletes who presumably had the social skills needed to succeed in a white environment.

In this way Kountze and his colleagues helped make African American athletes like Jackie Robinson household names in black America years before most of white America had ever heard of him. In fact, no other athlete was touted by the NNNAASE to the same degree as Robinson. While he was still a student at Pasadena Junior College and nearly a decade before Branch Rickey had ever heard of him, Robinson was already being lavished with press attention. The African American press sensed, early on, that part from his athletic skills, that Robinson, college-educated and well spoken, a product of integrated schools in Pasadena, California, was unique. Potentially, he possessed all the other skills needed to succeed in the major leagues. Although Branch Rickey would later came to the same conclusion it is quite possible if not for the efforts of Kountze and his counterparts, Rickey may never have recognized Robinson’s unique palette of qualifications or become aware of Robinson at all. It is important to keep in mind that when Robinson first came across Rickey’s radar, he had barely played an inning in the Negro Leagues. It was his reputation, not his record on the field, which made him visible to Rickey. Had that not been the case Rickey may well have eventually selected another player or even put off his decision to sign an African American player at all.

Kountze did not confine his efforts to push baseball toward integration to the sports page. In 1934 was granted a press pass by the Red Sox and became the first African American allowed in the ballpark as a working professional. One year later, in 1935, Kountze met with Red Sox secretary Phil Troy, who Kountze later wrote was “a fine gentleman of class.” He asked Troy if he knew that there were African American players qualified to appear in the major leagues, a question Boston’s white sportswriters were to cautious – or too cowardly - to ask at the time. According to Kountze Troy stated that he did, and agreed that the color line should be erased. But when Kountze pressed him as to why the Red Sox did not break the color line themselves, Troy “shrugged his shoulders and pointed to the ‘Front Office,’” indicating that the decision rested there, presumably with club owner Tom Yawkey, for neither general manager Eddie Collins nor anyone else in the organization could have made such a courageous break with tradition without Yawkey’s approval. Kountze also wrote that he had a similar meeting that year with Ed Cunningham, the secretary of the Boston Braves, and, Cunningham also stated that he personally disagreed with the color line.

Three years later, in 1938, Kountze met with Braves president and former Red Sox president Bob Quinn Sr. about making Braves Field more available to black teams, part of Kountze’s continuing effort to expose white audiences to African American baseball. In the past, Braves Field had only periodically been available and Burlin White, catcher and one of the organizers of the Philadelphia Royal Giants, asked Kountze to see if he could pry the door open a little farther.

Kountze came prepared for an argument and began to tell Quinn about all the African American talent in New England and that it was his belief that some of these players were of major league quality. According to Kountze, Quinn “surprised the author by being in agreement in many areas I expected to argue.” Quinn had grown up in Columbus, Ohio and told Kountze he had both played with and against African American ballplayers as a young man. He told Kountze “he knew more about Colored Big League abilities than I did,” and spoke knowledgably about various black teams and players. The conversation continued and Quinn offered that he was fully aware that both the National league in general and the Braves in particular needed an “extra attraction” to survive financially. Quinn told Kountze that if it were up to him alone there would be no color line, but that at the present time the other owners would certainly have “voted him down.” At the end of their conversation Quinn predicted that not only would the NL be integrated before the AL, but that the Braves would integrate before the Red Sox. His observation would prove to be prescient.

Pressure from men like Kountze against the forces that wanted organized baseball to remain lily white began to have tangible results during World War II. Before the war Jackie Robinson starred in football at UCLA and played shortstop on the baseball team. He left UCLA in 1941 short of his degree, and over the next year played very little baseball but stayed in shape playing fast pitch softball in the Pasadena area.
On March 22, 1942, the communist newspaper The Daily Worker successfully pressured the Chicago White Sox into giving a tryout to several African American players at the White Sox spring training camp at Brookside Park in Pasadena. Negro League pitcher Nate Moreland was invited to tryout as was Robinson, an invitation that that was tendered more because of his reputation and his proximity to Pasadena than because of his playing ability. Robinson had yet to play in the Negro Leagues and, in fact, had hardly thrived as a ballplayer at UCLA – in 1940 he hit .097 and had a fielding percentage of .907. But due to the efforts of Kountze and his fellow sportswriters, Robinson, of all the African American Athletes in the country, was one of only two men selected for the tryout.

Robinson impressed Chicago manager Jimmy Dykes at the tryout. Dykes, who knew Robinson as a ballplayer from his time at Pasadena Junior College, told the Worker, "Personally I would welcome Negro players on the Sox," and valued Robinson at $50,000. The cursory tryout made news in the Daily Worker and in African American newspapers, but due to the involvement of the Communist Party the white-dominated mainstream press virtually ignored the event. One day later, Robinson received his induction notice and reported to the Army ten days later. Any remote chance of signing a contract with the White Sox disappeared.

During World War II efforts at integration took a back seat to the war effort, but as soon as the outcome of the war was decided, those efforts resumed in earnest. The war gave those who wanted the color line broken an obvious and irrefutable argument; if African Americans were willing to fight and die for their country, why could they not play the national pastime?” There was no satisfactory answer, and the days of the color line were numbered.

In the spring of 1945, Boston city councilman Isadore Muchnick successfully pressured the Red Sox to hold the now infamous tryout for African American League players at Fenway Park. Kountze’s direct involvement in the tryout is unclear. In conversations with the author Kountze, who rarely took credit for anything, was circumspect, although he later wrote that he was “one of those who participated in the tryout crusade.” But it was Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier who selected Robinson – now out of the Army and just beginning a career in the Negro Leagues – for the tryout and escorted Jackie, Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams to Fenway Park. Kountze knew Smith and, as his reporting of the event later indicated, was undoubtedly kept informed. After the tryout, when none of the players heard back from the Red Sox, Kountze, now writing for the Boston Guardian, contacted the Red Sox and asked how Robinson and the others had performed. Coach Hugh Duffy told him the three players were "Good boys ... hustlers. We were glad to give them a tryout. They're the same as anybody else.... Got a soul the same as I have.... Deserve the same chance as anybody." Nevertheless, none of the three were signed to a contract.

The optimism that Kountze initially had felt about the tryout quickly turned to bitterness. “We all expected a fair trial at the Hub’s Fenway Park” wrote Kountze later. He called the incident "one of the biggest letdowns the author ever experienced in his entire career of sportswriting. I could see it happening in Mississippi, but not in Massachusetts." The African American community, both in and around Boston and elsewhere in the nation, now held the Red Sox responsible. They had believed – naively perhaps – that due to Boston’s liberal reputation and abolitionist past, that Boston offered perhaps the best chance to break the color line. The disappointment was profound. As a result, after the tryout the African American community held the Red Sox in disdain more so than any other team in the game.

Doc Kountze, however, simply kept working for the cause. When Rickey signed Robinson and then promoted him to the Dodgers, Boston’s white newspapers barely noted Robinson’s presence on the field, but Kountze enthusiastically reported on his progress. The cumulative efforts of the NNNAASE had succeeded, for when Rickey went looking for a player, he found precisely the man the NNNAASE had most often touted. But although the battle was won, Kountze knew that the war was not over – nor it would be until every team in the major leagues, including Boston’s Braves and Red Sox, was integrated.

By this time, however, Kountze had some allies. Now that the color line was broken, more white journalists added their voices to the call for integration and they were now joined by a growing chorus of similar calls from Boston’s religious, political, academic and business community. The logic of their arguments for the integration of baseball was irrefutable and over the next decade nearly every notable Boston baseball writer either explicitly or tacitly began wondering when the Braves and Red Sox would follow course and not only begin to sign African American players, but bring one to Boston. After all, the color line at both ballparks had already been broken by visiting ballplayers in 1947 – by Robinson at Braves Field and by the Indians’ Larry Doby at Fenway Park. What was the holdup now?

As Quinn had earlier predicted, the Braves beat the Red Sox signing Sam Jethroe in 1950, and over the next few years, as other teams followed suit, the pressure on the Red Sox to integrate increased. Shortly after the Braves signed Jethroe – and after passing over an opportunity to sign Willie Mays - the Red Sox belatedly signed his thirty-one-year-old Birmingham Barons teammate Piper Davis. But after Davis played only fifteen games in 1950, hitting .333 for single-A Scranton, he was released in what Joe Cronin later said was "a cost-cutting measure." Apparently, Davis had served his purpose – critics could no longer charge that the Red Sox organization had never signed an African American. But the color line on the big league roster held firm

Kountze kept up the drumbeat in the local black press, which now included a significant ally. In 1950 Kountze left the Boston Chronicle and joined the staff of the Boston Guardian. His place at the Chronicle was taken over by Cambridge native Ralph “Stody” Ward, another African American journalist and former semi-pro player of distinction. As other teams integrated and the Red Sox continued to dance around the issue, Ward added his voice to cause. In 1956 he even led a contingent of African American leaders to Fenway Park to “watch games and talk over the situation,” a group that included Judge Bruce Robinson, NCAAP executive director Ed Cooper and notable local ball players, like the legendary Will Jackman and Burlin White. Although the group was treated well – Tom Yawkey was later quoted by Kountze as saying the group made “a very fine impression,” and Ward was invited to recommend players to Boston scouts, that impression was only skin deep, for the Red Sox took no action. But the cumulative weight of such pressure was beginning to make the Red Sox uncomfortable.

By then there were African Americans in the Boston farm system, namely pitcher Earl Wilson and infielder Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, both of whom had been signed in 1953. But their progress through the farm system was mercurial. Kountze could do nothing more than keep doing what he had done all along; report on their progress and by doing so expose the moral cowardice of the Red Sox front office. Fortunately, by this point the cause was now the object of open discussion in Boston’s mainstream press, which by 1958 was wondering just what Green and Wilson had to do to earn a promotion. Good thing, because just as the Negro Leagues faded as major league baseball became ever more integrated, as the mainstream press began to report on African American issues the influence of Black Press began to wane. In the local African American press began to fall on hard times. After surviving for nearly five decades the Boston Guardian folded in the spring of 1957. Although Kountze would occasionally write for the Chronicle, that paper was also struggling and would cease publication in 1960. From that point on most of Doc’s journalistic efforts would find expression in the local Medford papers.

By then, of course, Kountze’s work had finally born fruit, for on July 21, 1959, Pumpsie Green was called up by the Red Sox to the major leagues. A week later, he was joined by Earl Wilson. A sad chapter in the history of the Red Sox was - to a degree - put to rest.

Few at the time realize the key role Kountze had played in making that happen, and over the next few decades of his life he himself drew little attention to himself. He lived frugally in West Medford, and turned his attention to two larger projects, writing two books. The first, “This Is Your Heritage,” published in 1969, was an immense, sprawling, detailed personal history of African Americans in Medford. The second, “50 Sports Years Along Memory Lane,” was published in 1979 and detailed the history of African American athletes in the Boston area. Although both books lack the professional polish of products produced by major trade publishers, each is an absolute treasure trove of information that can be found nowhere else.

The author was fortunate to get to know Kountze in 1986 after coming across his book at the Boston Public Library while researching a story for Boston Magazine about African American baseball in Boston. Kountze himself was the best source of the story, and over the next few years we often spoke, most of our conversations beginning with my specific questions on a topic or person in Boston sports. Kountze was always forthcoming, but inevitably the conversations inevitably veered off onto matters more important – his kind and gentle counsel about the matters of life. I would occasionally send him copies of my work, and a week or two later I would inevitably receive a letter back, addressed to “Glenn Stout, Sports Writer.”

Nothing ever made me feel more proud. Inside would be a page or two of onionskin paper covered edge to edge and front and back in tiny, single-spaced pica typewriter print, as if paper was too precious to waste, a letter that contained much needed praise, the occasional correction, and, always, encouragement. On the one occasion when he finally agreed to allow me to write about him, I made a brief visit to his home in West Medford.

It was my first ever excursion into the home of a writer – apart from my own – and I was not disappointed. He wrote before a wall covered with photographs of his heroes – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson and others. He used an old wooden door as a table and wrote on an ancient manual typewriter. Everywhere were piles of papers, books, magazines and scrapbooks. Doc was beginning to show his age, and although he was becoming infirm he still possessed an admirable level of energy, particularly when he spoke about something he cared about, which is to say almost everything.

Late in his life – belatedly - Kountze’s efforts finally began to be recognized. On May 29, 1993, he was invited by the Red Sox to Fenway Park as part of a tribute to the Negro Leagues before an “Old Timers Day” game. Standing on the field with players like Ernie Banks, Minnie Minoso and Sam Jethroe, Kountze stood tallest – and on the mound, where he was allowed to throw out the first pitch. One year later, on September 26, 1994, he passed away at age 84.

But perhaps the most telling story about Doc Kountze took place a few years earlier and concerns Ted Williams and Pumpsie Green. In 1991 I sent Doc a copy of my first book, “Ted Williams: A Portrait in Words and Pictures.” In the book I mentioned that when Pumpsie Green joined the Red Sox, Ted Williams made a point of publicly playing catch with Greene in front of the Fenway Park grandstand, indicating his personal approval in the most explicit way possible. Later in the book I repeated part of Ted Williams’ 1966 induction speech at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in which he said “Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as anybody else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren't given the chance,” the first Hall of Famer to make such a public statement I later had the opportunity to interview Williams and when asked him why he mentioned the players in his speech, Williams told me that he was fully aware of the quality of play in the Negro Leagues, and that although he had not seen many black ballplayers himself, he had heard stories about the players from his childhood throughout his major league career.

Shortly after I sent Doc my book I received another letter address to “Glenn Stout, Sports Writer.” Doc was mortified. More than thirty years earlier, before Pumpsie Green joined the Red Sox, Kountze, trying to understand why the Red Sox were so resistant to integration, had wondered if perhaps Ted Williams, not only the teams’ best player but the organization’s most important personality, had had something to do with keeping the Red Sox white. Understand, this was only idle, private speculation on Kountze’s’ part. He never wrote or intimated that Williams was prejudiced and had probably never even uttered the notion aloud. But he had believed something he now knew was untrue and he was deeply ashamed.

He asked me if it was possible to provide an address for Ted Williams. He wanted to – had to – write back and apologize, not for something he wrote or said, but simply for something he had once thought. I knew someone who knew someone, and was able not only to provide the address but to provide Williams with a little bit of background about the sender. A few months later I heard from Doc Kountze once more. His letter had gotten through. And although John Updike had once famously written of Williams that “Gods do not answer letters,” on this occasion Updike was proven wrong.

Ted Williams had written Doc back. There was, he wrote, no need to apologize.

[Glenn Stout's latest book, FENWAY 1912, has been awarded the 2011 Seymour Medal by the Society for American Baseball Research as the bets boof of baseball history or biography published in 2011. For more see]

Doc Kountze, private correspondence with Glenn Stout, 1986-1993.
Kountze, Mabray “Doc” 50 Sports Years Along Memory Lane. Mystic Valley Press, Medford, Massachusetts, 1979.
”Diamonds Aren’t Forever,” by Glenn Stout, Boston Magazine, September 1986.
“Doc’s Cause: Curing Baseball of Bigotry,” by Glenn Stout. Middlesex News, July 28, 1987.
”Legendary Munroe and Future Sox MacFayden Spin a Masterpiece,” by Glenn Stout. The Fan, September 1987.
Stout, Glenn, and Johnson, Richard. Jackie Robinson: Between the Base Lines. Woodford, San Francisco, 1997.
Stout, Glenn, and Johnson, Richard. Red Sox Century. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Stout, Glenn, and Johnson, Richard. Ted Williams: A Portrait in Words and Pictures. Walker and Company. 1991.