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? When?
Abe Saperstein, originator of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball empire, was scouting for a way to capitalize on the offseason.
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.”
Black 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.”
The league 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 Portland franchise.
“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 effort:
“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 11,000 fans.”
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 reported.
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.
Most of 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.”
It wasn’t enough.
“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.”
Portland’s Roses apparently just packed their bags and headed home. Newspaper files reveal no accounts of the team’s demise.