The Baseball Murders
Frank Thomas Smith
For Chapters one and two, click here.
I’d better explain why it was such a big deal for Jackie Robinson to come up to the major leagues. Nowadays, when blacks make up more than half of the players, it may come as a surprise to readers who don’t know their baseball history that before Jackie no black had ever played in the major leagues. In fact, there was an unwritten law that they couldn’t play in organized baseball at all, and that’s why there was a Negro League with a lot of great players who never got any farther. It hadn’t always been like that. Right after the civil war a few blacks played in organized ball, but the Southerners soon took care of that. They pressured the northern team owners into a “gentlemen’s agreement” not to sign any blacks, and that’s the way it stood until the nineteen-fifties. John McGraw, owner of the New York Giants, tried to slip in a couple of black players at the beginning of the twentieth century, claiming, in one case, that the player was an American Indian, and in the other that he was Cuban (and therefore not a “real” Negro). But it didn’t work.
Josh Gibson of the Negro League was probably as good as Babe Ruth and the Pittsburgh Pirates wanted to sign him, but baseball’s racist commissioner, Judge Landis, rejected the possibility with the infamous words, “The colored players have their own league. Let them play there.” Of course Landis was only expressing most of the owners’ sentiments. When Landis died in 1944 – during the Second World War, when blacks were fighting in the still segregated armed forces – the new Commissioner, Happy Chandler, was quoted in a Pittsburgh newspaper as saying: “I’m for the Four Freedoms, and if a black boy can make it at Okinawa and go to Guadalcanal (well known Pacific battlefields against the Japanese), he can make it in baseball.” When Branch Rickey saw that he knew the gates could be opened, and he intended to be the opener.
Jackie Robinson seemed born to be the player who broke the color line. He played on the UCLA varsity teams in four sports: football, baseball, basketball and track. Although he could have gone to the Olympics as a runner, he preferred to concentrate of football and basketball. When the Second World War broke out, Robinson went to Officer’s Candidate School and became a Second Lieutenant. But he was considered a troublemaker in the army for pushing for Negro rights. He was honorably discharged in 1944 and in 1945 he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League for $400 a month, respectable pay for a Negro at the time. He’d decided to drop football because of injuries already suffered. That was no life for a guy like Robinson though – traveling by bus and having to live in miserable hotels for Negroes in the South and taking all the Jim Crow prejudice then prevalent.
But Branch Rickey was already looking for the right player to make his revolutionary move. Robinson possibly wasn’t the best player in the Negro League; at least many considered that there were several others who were better. But Rickey was looking for someone who had the intelligence, education and stamina to be able to take the abuse that would inevitably come – take it without hitting back. And Jackie had also played with and against whites and knew how to socialize with them.
On October 23, 1945, Robinson signed a contract to play with the Montreal Royals. The Royals was the Dodgers’ Triple A minor league team and Montreal was about as far away from Deep South racism as you could get. For American Negroes this was an event of major social importance. If he succeeded, it would open the door to Negroes not only in baseball, but other activities as well. Jackie took a lot of shit while playing for Montreal – not in Montreal, but when the team traveled to the South and sometimes even in Northern cities. Mostly he just took it as Branch Rickey had instructed. A clue to Robinson’s mettle can be discerned in the attitude of the Montreal manager, a Mississippian named Clay Hopper. When informed that Robinson would be playing for him, he begged Rickey not to go ahead with it. “Please don’t do this to me. I’m white and I’ve lived in Mississippi all my life. If you do this, you’re going to force me to move my family and my home out of Mississippi.” Rickey’s succinct reply was: “You can manage correctly, or you can be unemployed.” After Montreal won the “Little World Series”, Hopper, having experienced Robinson’s great playing abilities and his attitude under extreme pressure, said to him: “You’re a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman. It’s been wonderful having you on the team.”
But the Montreal Royals were not in the Major Leagues. That was another world populated by godlike heroes who had no reason to envy the heroes of antiquity. And it was a white world.
Mrs. Gladys Rounder lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. I was familiar with the area because of a job I had as an insurance investigator before getting my private detective’s license. The insurance companies sold cheap rip-off life insurance to poor people for a fifty cents weekly premium. The pay off if the insured party died was one thousand dollars. All the suckers had to do was fill out a coupon displayed below the dotted line in a magazine ad and send it to the company, then pay his fifty cents a week at the company’s offices. A large percentage paid for a few months then stopped because it was too time-consuming to travel to the office, or the impulse to exercise responsibility towards their families soon wore off. That was all right with the company though, for non-payment of one premium automatically cancelled the policy – and those fifty cents payments added up. What the company wanted to know, however, is whether the insured actually existed and if he or she wasn’t on his deathbed or a drug addict likely to be there very shortly, or a gangster likely to be killed by cops or fellow robbers. I worked for an investigating company that serviced the insurance companies’ information requests. Head office was in Atlanta, Georgia, so obviously we had no black investigators. Even if the Head Office had been in New York, we probably wouldn’t have had any.
No one wanted to work Bed-Sty of course, so they always gave that area to the new inexperienced guys, so the first investigations I had were there. In reality it wasn’t too bad because the majority of contacts were in the middle class area and all you had to do was ring the bell, identify yourself as an insurance company rep and they invited you in for tea. The insurance companies considered Negroes to be a greater risk because of the crime statistics. The stats were probably accurate, but they resulted in the majority of the honest hard working folks to have to pay higher premiums, which is why many resorted to those fifty cents a week policies. The slum area was bad, though. First of all just walking on the street and having people stare at your white face, figuring you were a cop. You rang apartment 3C’s bell downstairs and there was no answer because it didn’t work, so you walked up three flights of stairs smelling of piss and knocked at the door. “Who is it?” “Long Life Insurance co.” End of contact. Or a woman opens the door and you ask for Mr. Jones, the insured. “Who that?” or “Never heard of him.” Door slammed. End of contact. That happened about half the time, the rest were routine: “Yes, that’s my husband, he’s at work, car washer.” The ones who didn’t answer the questions didn’t get the policy, the others did. This was cheap stuff so we didn’t have time to really investigate.
My secretary Charlene, a.k.a. Charlie, and I took two buses from Borough hall to Bedford-Stuyvesant and got off only a block from Gladys Rounder’s house in a middle class neighborhood of one-family homes. As we walked towards her house Charlie said, “Gladys probably isn’t what you’re expecting, Darrell.”
“What am I expecting?”
“I don’t know, but she’s not it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Charlie was silent for a few steps before answering. “She’s sort of a seer.”
I stopped, but Charlie kept walking and I had to skip to catch up. “See what I mean,” she said.
“Well, what does she see?
“For starters she sees dead people walking along the street carrying their heads under their arms”.
“That’s great, Charlie,” I said, angrily. “So we’re about to interview a nut case.”
“She’s not a nut, Darrell, believe me. She really sees those things.”
“If she really sees them, they’re hallucinations,” I countered. “Dead people don’t walk around Brooklyn with their heads—“ I caught myself making a stupid remark.
Charlie couldn’t resist. “Ok, so they walk around without carrying their heads under their arms.“
“Stop it, Charlie.” She laughed and I had to laugh with her. “Goddamn it though, this is serious. If this woman wrote that letter it’s probably nothing but her imagination and we’re wasting our time.”
“Listen, Darrell,” Charlie insisted, slowing down and looking at me, “she’s not crazy. A lot of people go to her for advice and to be cured. I’ve…I’ve done it myself. She’s a very wise woman.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that, especially as we were at her house and Charlie climbed the stairs of the porch and was ringing the bell before I could think of anything.
I guess I was expecting someone like Whoopie Goldberg, but Gladys Rounder was svelte and attractive looking behind the screen door. When she opened it for us to enter, I saw that she was carrying many more years than that first filtered glance had revealed. Her enormous Afro should have been gray but wasn’t, and her skin was remarkably smooth and very black against her heavily red lipsticked lips. She didn’t show surprise at me standing behind Charlie, just smiled and walked back into the house leaving me to close the door and follow them into the living room. Three chairs were placed around a small round table on which a tea service sat. I had heard every word of Charlie’s conversation with her on the phone and I could swear that she never mentioned me. So why did Gladys Rounder place three chairs around the table? Probably they were always there, I thought, and she wasn’t counting at all.
A cozy, I think it’s called – or used to be called – kept the teapot warm. She removed it and poured us all a cup through a metal tea strainer without asking if we wanted any. She then passed the back of her hand over the sugar and cream, indicating that we should help ourselves. She spoke for the first time. I guess I was expecting an elegant British West Indies accent, but got pure Brooklyn with just a touch of Negro instead. “What’s on ya mind, Charlene honey?” she asked in a gravelly voice, “and who’s the dude?” But she was smiling and I didn’t mind being called a dude at all. Charlie laughed at the idea though, a bit too hard to my liking.
“He’s my boss, Gladys, a private eye.” Ha, ha.
“Oh dear, now ain’t that cool. What’s he private eyeing and what I got to do with it?” She turned her large searching eyes to me. “I guess you can talk for yourself, Mr….”
“Stark, Darrell Stark. Yes, I can talk. But first I want to thank you for seeing us on such short notice.”
“OK, knock off the bullshit and get to the point.” It sounded insulting, but her smile was so bright and sincere that it forced me to admit to myself that it was bullshit. I showed her the letter and clippings that Branch Rickey had received and asked if she could give us a clue as to who had written it.
She frowned at me, mockingly I thought. “So you wish me to use my clairvoyant powers to discover the author of this letter?” I hesitated too long, then said, “Whatever.”
Her sudden throaty laugh filled the room, then evaporated just as suddenly. “No, this is no laughing matter, is it, Mr. Stark?”
“Darrell. No, it isn’t,” I agreed.
She turned to Charlie. “I must say, my dear, that you must have latent clairvoyant power yourself.” Then, to me, “I wrote the letter, Darrell.”
Charlie and I glanced at each other, and I thought that if I was involved with a witch at least she was a good one, then decided that it had been a good guess.
“Er, Gladys,” I said, “could you tell us what you know about all this…I mean why you sent the letter and clippings to Mr. Rickey?”
She clasped her hands in her lap and stared at something behind my head, or more probably at nothing. “I don’t know much, but I feel that something bad is going on.” I prefer facts to feelings and was becoming restless at what seemed to be turning out to be a waste of time. “But you prefer facts to feelings, Darrell,” she said, looking at me again and would have knocked me off my chair if words were blows. “So I’ll stick to the facts. Right?” I didn’t know what to say and couldn’t have said anything anyway, so I just nodded.
My son, Booker, plays for the Boston Bombers in the Negro league and I’m a big fan, always have been. I see all his games when they come to New York and I travel a lot to Boston, too. You know, it’s a crying shame that Brooklyn has no Negro league team and we have to go all the way to Harlem. They could build a stadium right here in Bed-Sty and fill every game – guaranteed.”
“It would be even better if the Brooklyn Dodgers had Negro players,” Charlie said. “Don’t you think so, Gladys?”
“Yes, I do,” she smiled. “Back to the facts, dear. When that boy Jerry Rose, my boy’s teammate was killed, my boy was real shook up, but he never said anything to me. Then when the other boy died in Charleston, that was Joshua Rollins, he was broken up, because he’d played in Charleston before he was traded to Boston, and that boy was his friend. That’s when he came to me and when he told me their names I noticed that the initials were the same – you noticed that, too, Darrell, I guess, or you wouldn’t be here.” I nodded again.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Gladys went on, looking at Charlie as though a non-factual statement would be lost on me, “so I got friends in Boston and Charleston to check the newspaper stories on both deaths and send the clippings to me. Then I sent them to Mr. Rickey, who I think is a good man.”
She seemed to be finished, so I said, “He is a good man, Gladys, and you did the right thing.”
“And he hired you to investigate it. Why you?”
“Because we’re old friends and he can trust me.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You ain’t old enough to be an old friend of no one, boy.”
She was mocking me again, but she had a point, so I explained my father’s friendship with Branch Rickey. “OK, “ she said, “that’s good. Now what you going to do about it?”
“I’m not sure yet. Two colored baseball players are dead under suspicious – according to you – circumstances. So what else is new?” I was a little annoyed at her treating me like a new kid on the block.
“What’s not new because you and Mr. Rickey are already thinking it or you wouldn’t be here it is that Jackie Robinson’s initials are also JR.”
“Yeah. What do you think about that?”
“I think that Mr. Rickey wants to bring that boy up to the Dodgers and evil is afoot so Jackie is in danger.” No smiles now.
“Any idea who could be behind it?”
“Nope, and I hope you’re as good a dick as you are a friend.”
I lifted my teacup and drank down what was left, wondering what kind of tea it was. “This is delicious tea, Gladys. I hope so, too – that I’m a good enough detective I mean.”
She finally smiled again. “You are, Darrell, you are. And with Charlie here behind you, you even better. Anything else?”
Cue to leave. I stood up. “Only that this has to be kept quiet.”
“Don’t you think I know that? Hell, I din’t even sign that letter. But you found me anyhow.”
“Same difference. You gonna keep me informed, honey?” she asked Charlie, who looked at me for the answer.
“Yes, we are, Gladys,” I said. “That’s a promise.”
Continued in the next issue of Southern Cross Review
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