| Jesse Owens' fleeting reign with the
By John Terry
Sports trivia question: With what Portland franchise
was Olympic track legend Jesse Owens associated?
The Portland Roses.
Reaction: The Portland what? Never heard of them. What was their game?
Abe Saperstein, originator of the
Harlem Globetrotters basketball empire, was scouting for a way to capitalize on
In the then-segregated world of pro sports, black
athletes generally had few markets for their talents other than all-black
venues. Saperstein wanted a way to keep his operation profitable during the
months basketball didn't pay.
The bigotry inherent in sports at the
time traced to the aftermath of the Civil War, when baseball was the "national
pastime" reserved for "white gentlemen."
"Black ballplayers were
excluded from participation by the National Association of Baseball Players on
December 11, 1868 when the governing body voted unanimously to bar 'any club
which may be composed of one or more colored persons,' " writes James A. Riley,
research director for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
(www.blackbaseball.com). "When baseball attained professional status the
following season, pro teams were not bound by the amateur association's ruling,
and during the 19th century black ballplayers appeared on integrated teams and
some black teams played in integrated leagues.
"But gradually, black
players began to be excluded from the white leagues and by the beginning of the
new century, there were no black players in organized baseball."
players responded with teams and leagues of their own. During the 1920s, there
was the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League. When they failed
financially, they were replaced in the 1930s by a new Negro National League and
the Negro American League. Those leagues played 11 World Series and held their
own all-star game.
In 1946, "the local Portland Beavers, like the rest
of their triple-A Pacific Coast League, hired only players who could at least
pass for white," Michael Munk, a Portland historian, says in an article for the
Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission.
"The first challenge to the
all-white PCL had come only three years earlier when the Los Angeles Angels
offered try-outs to two players from the Black leagues. But owner Phil Wrigley
refused to hire them.
"So shortly after the end of World War II, Abe
Saperstein . . . together with W.S. Welch, former manager of the Birmingham
Black Barons, decided the times were right for a Black league on the West
Coast. In a March, 1946, meeting at the High Marine Social Club in Oakland,
they organized the West Coast Negro Baseball Association."
had six franchises: the San Diego Tigers, Los Angeles White Sox, San Francisco
Sea Lions, Oakland Larks, Seattle Steelheads and the Portland Roses. Owens
contributed his prestige as a league vice president and took ownership of the
"To its organizers the West Coast, with its own
history and tradition, seemed like profitable territory for a new segregated
league," Munk says.
"Until the end of World War II Negro leagues
avoided the area, apparently because of its relatively low proportion of Black
residents, but that changed with the major influx of black workers to war
industries such as Portland's shipyards."
The league mapped out a
110-game schedule and arranged to use PCL fields when the white teams weren't
at home. A short article in The Oregonian for June 4, 1946, heralded the local
"Jesse Owens himself, the famous colored athlete who has
performed in Portland and is well known here, confirmed Monday that he is back
of the Portland entry in the newly formed West Coast (Negro) Baseball
association, and says he has a good team lined up for the Portland Roses, which
will be its name.
"Of course the new league, says Jesse, is starting
on a modest basis and if the original tune-ups aren't strong enough, changes
will be made. However, he emphasized that this is the beginning of a regular
colored Pacific coast baseball league. . . . In Oakland Sunday the turnout was
The Roses' manager was Wes Barrow, formerly of the New
Orleans Black Pelicans.
"Al Jones comes from the Memphis Red Sox of
the Negro American circuit," The Oregonian reported. "Blue Dunn at first base
was with the Miami Ethiopian Clowns and Collins Jones, infielder, rose to fame
with the Birmingham Black Barons."
The team won its June 4 opener 8-3
against the L.A. White Sox before about 1,500 fans at the Beavers' stadium on
Northwest Vaughn Street.
"The Portland teams played heads-up,
entertaining baseball throughout, and were paced by Sam Wheeler, center
fielder, who got two doubles and was the fielding star," The Oregonian
Not all the league's teams were as eclectic as the Roses.
The Seattle Steelheads, in fact, were nothing less than the Globetrotters
transplanted to the baseball diamond. There they played straight-up ball with
none of the tomfoolery they sported on the basketball court.
the teams were quickly in financial distress, including Portland, which
resorted to crowd-pleasers apart from baseball. Coverage of the June 28
Roses-Steelheads double header reported:
"In a side feature, Jesse
Owen, famed track star who owns the Portland team, gave an exhibition of his
sizzling speed and great form. He circled the bases and skimmed 100 yards over
the low hurdles with speed that had the crowd of 1,200 gasping."
"Unfortunately, the only teams that earned money to
stay in business were Seattle and Oakland," says the Negro League Baseball
Players Association's Web site (www.nlbpa.com). "As best that can be
determined, when the League folded, Oakland was in first and Seattle in second.
The association ended in July of 1946, but the Steelheads played through
September and once again became the Harlem Globetrotters."
Roses apparently just packed their bags and headed home. Newspaper files reveal
no accounts of the team's demise.