Oakland's Negro-League-Era Ballclubsby Garth Kimball
Oakland Black Giants / Athens Colored Elites of Oakland
Between the World Wars, California's African-American communities hosted semi-pro baseball teams and leagues with much acclaim. Oakland had a team called the Black Colored Giants, who would travel statewide to play. In 1925, The Sacramento Bee reported that the Colored Giants lost to the Humboldt All Stars in Eureka. Ballplayers like slugger "Bullet" Hilary Meadows wowed the crowd. Jimmy Claxton, who briefly pitched for the Oakland Oaks, also played for the Colored Giants. Other teams would capitalize on Oakland's fertile breeding ground for ballplayers. The Marysville Colored Giants, who the San Jose Mercury News called "the finest Negro club ever organized in the northern part of the state," consisted mostly of ballplayers from Oakland, Richmond and Sacramento. The Marysville team would be perennial league champs and drew good attendance in each city they visited.
The Mercury News described the Athens Colored Elites' style as "flashy type of baseball." Oakland's finest semi-pro black ballclub represented the Athens Athletic Club, which stood on Clay Street in downtown Oakland. The Mercury News also called the Elites, "one of the finest colored baseball teams on the coast É highlighted by clockwork teamwork." The Elites were led by slugger Jim Lane, called the "bronze Babe Ruth," and Wilson Record, who also played with the Detroit Stars. During the Great Depression, these Northern California black ball clubs started to fold. But they were reborn after World War II, albeit briefly, as The West Coast Baseball Association (WCBA).
The West Coast Baseball Association's Oakland Larks were born from two of the major sports figures of the early part of the 20th Century: Olympic great Jesse Owens and Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters. The fledgling league was founded to capitalize on the large migration of African Americans to West Coast cities, and also to show that black baseball was still viable after Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson. In fall of 1945, Saperstein and Owens started the league with he idea that its teams would use the existing Pacific Coast League stadiums. The Oakland Larks, for example, would share Oaks Park with the PCL's Oakland Oaks. The Larks were joined by five other entries: Los Angeles White Sox, San Francisco Sea Lions, Portland Rosebuds, Seattle Steelheads and the Fresno Tigers. Each franchise was expected to pay a $500 entry fee; but it later was dropped. Larks owner was Eddie Harris took a leading role in the WCBA, and his Oakland club was the league's most successful team, both on the field and at the gate.
The WCBA inaugural game was a doubleheader between the L.A. White Sox and Sea Lions on May 12, 1946. Oakland's own Governor Earl Warren threw out the first pitch at San Francisco's Seals Stadium to open the league. The Larks traveled to Fresno, where they routed the Tigers 16- in front of a sellout crowd of 3,500. Larks pitcher "Sugar" Cain threw a gem, only allowing three hits. The Larks returned to Oakland and Oaks Park was filled to capacity, featuring a crowd of 6,000. The Larks opening-day starter was a local kid named Lionel Wilson, who became Oakland's first African-American mayor,
While Larks attendance was always strong, other WCBA teams' ticket sales were more erratic. The league folded after one season due to financial instability. However, the well-supported Oakland Larks continued to play as a barnstorming team, enjoying much success. While the WCBA only lasted a few months, it created conditions that allowed the Pacific Coast League to integrate a couple of years later.
Above, three key members of the 1946-47 Oakland Larks
(left to right - Charles Roberts, Marion Cain, Ira Wells).
(Photo courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California, Catalog ID: H99.29.36)
Above, the starting staff of the Oakland Larks
(left to right - Wade James, Wee Willie Jones, Charles "Speck" Roberts, Marion Sugar Cain).
Later, from 1951 to 1957, Cain became one of the top hurlers in the ManDak League.
(Photo courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California, Catalog ID: H99.29.42)